Muhtar Kent: Coca-Cola a bridge between world and Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, March 1, 2013

As the top executive for The Coca-Cola Co., Muhtar Kent may be the most global CEO working for the most global company in the world.

It is a role Kent takes seriously. As Coca-Cola’s CEO for nearly five years (his anniversary will be in July), Kent has continued to expand the company’s business and social impact on the world.

Yet in a 75-minute interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle on Feb. 26, Kent also emphasized the unique perspective that both he and the company have brought and can continue to bring to Atlanta.

“Coca-Cola is a bridge between the world and this town,” Kent said. “And I’m proud to be a part of that bridge between the world and this great city and this great state.”

Coca-Cola has operations in more than 200 countries, and there are only two nations where it does not do business — North Korea and Cuba. (But even there one can still find a Coke because they’ve been brought in by unauthorized third parties).

Coca-Cola employs about 10,000 people in Georgia, and about one-third of its workers at the Atlanta headquarters support the company’s international business.

“So the more our international business develops, the more growth we generate overseas, the more investment we make overseas, the more cases we sell of bottles of Coca-Cola and our 500 other brands,” Kent said. “Those generate more employment here at headquarters.”

Kent also has taken Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife, Sandra, on a trade mission to his native Turkey. The company has facilitated several trade missions for the governor and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. And Kent is particularly focused on China — having served as chairman of the U.S. China Business Council.

Currently China exports $3 of goods to the United States for every dollar it imports from the United States. The United States also invest 10 times more in China than China does here.

“I think what will happen in the next 20 to 30 years is we’re going to see both of those converge to the betterment of both countries and to the betterment of the world,” Kent said.

It is from that perspective that Kent got involved behind the scenes to try to get Georgia not to implement an overly restrictive immigration law.

“I believe there’s as much a need for reforming immigration in the United States as there is for reform in fiscal matters,” Kent said. “We’ve got a situation in the country, whether we like it or not … we have 10 million people with no formal papers. It’s got to be fixed. You have to convert a de facto problem into an advantage.”

Kent went on to say that Georgia’s famous Vidalia onions stayed in the ground because there weren’t enough people to pick them. “Is that a good thing?” he asked rhetorically. “It can’t be.”

The problem is that the United States has a 19th-century immigration quota system that needs to be converted to a 21st-century system so the country can welcome the “best from around the world” — people with university degrees, people who want to invest here and grow companies here, Kent said.

But Kent said the nation should enact immigration reform in a strategic way.

“We don’t want to open our borders. We want to make them stronger. We should make them stronger,” Kent said. “I think it can be done in a way which makes us all stronger, our borders stronger with better control and better screening of who comes in. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.”

Global perspective

Kent was born into his global perspective.

His father was a Turkish diplomat who served in countries all around the world. Kent was born in 1952 in New York City. When he was four years old, he and his parents moved to Southeast Asia and he lived in Thailand, India and Iran. All the time he was growing up, he would spend a month during the summer in his mother’s hometown of Ayvalik, Turkey, located on the Aegean coast — where he learned to love the deep blue sea and the cultural beauty of olive trees. (Even today, he tries to go to Mount Athos, a Greek monastery on the Aegean sea for a couple of days each year just to clear his head).

He then went to boarding school in Mersin, Turkey, and on to the United Kingdom to study at the University of Hull and enrolled in a graduate program at City University in London.

Then in 1978, he answered a classified ad for a job at The Coca-Cola Co. After arriving in Atlanta, he was staying at downtown’s Hyatt Regency Atlanta hotel, and his job interview was at 1 p.m. He wanted to walk the mile and a half from the Hyatt to Coke’s North Avenue headquarters and was told by the concierge: “You can’t walk there.”

He got the job. His first impression of Atlanta was that of a relatively small Southern town with a limited international profile. His Coca-Cola career took him all over the world — serving as general manager of Coca-Cola Turkey and Central Asia and as vice president of Coca-Cola International, as president of Coca-Cola’s East Central Europe Division (overseeing 23 countries), and as managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil-Europe. He left the company in 1999 to become CEO of one of Europe’s largest international beverage businesses.

Then in May 2005, he rejoined Coca-Cola to work with his close friend, Neville Isdell, who had come out of retirement to become the company’s CEO. Kent continued to get promoted until becoming the company’s CEO in July 2008.

Local perspective, too

During all those years, Kent would visit Atlanta several times a year — building arelationship with the city.

“I see this as the place of not only the home of Coca-Cola, but as my home,” said Kent, who lives in Buckhead. “I’ve always seen it as a continuum of tremendous dynamism in development and a great town and offering great things to the world.”

Kent, who has developed a strong relationship with Mayor Reed, said Atlanta has been fortunate to have had visionary leaders who brought the Olympics, build the largest airport in the world, developed a vibrant arts and cultural community, and embraced a diverse population.

“A lot has been done,” Kent said. “We shouldn’t stop here. We need to work twice as hard to make downtown a place where more and more people would love to come and live.”

Kent also said the city needs to “have more public transport” and “more walking.” When people “depend more on public transportation” and “less dependence on personal vehicles,” it makes for “healthier” communities with more urban architecture.

It all fits in with how Kent sees the world’s demographic trends.

“Whether we like it or not, urbanization is going to happen and a billion people are going to move into the cities in the next 10 to 15 years. And so all of us — business, government and civil society — have a role to play in ‘can we end up where the individual is happier?’ and ‘how we can transfer a better planet to our grandchildren,’ ” Kent said.

Coca-Cola has adopted two major initiatives — economic empowerment for 5 million women by 2020; and water neutrality by 2020 — meaning that Coca-Cola will return to Earth all the water that it uses.

Kent also believes that we have come to expect too much from our national leaders, and instead we should focus on the new generation of what he called “sub-national” leaders — mayors and governors who have the ability to act and be effective.

“I have an idea where we get 25 of the largest city mayors in the world in a room and get 30, 40, 50 CEOs and a few NGO (non-governmental organization) leaders and come out with a manifesto for employment and growth,” Kent said. “If you take the 25 largest cities in the world, they account for probably 50 percent of the GDP in the world.”

Although he is the son of a diplomat, Kent does not see himself as a corporate diplomat.

“Coca-Cola is to the world a great conduit of internationalism and of openness and of creating better communities with what we do,” Kent said. “There are very few businesses that are as international as Coca-Cola. The greatness of our business is that it invests locally, it builds locally, it produces locally, it sells locally, it creates jobs locally, and that is what Coca-Cola is all about.”

During his personal time, Kent loves to listen to soft jazz and soft French, Italian and Brazilian songs. He and his family have been involved with Special Olympics for 30 years, and they and the company are active with the Georgia Special Olympics.

Kent also enjoys fast cars, and he was once the head of the motor club when he was in college. His son used to race, but now Kent is relieved that he decided not to pursue that as a profession.

Today, Kent said, he would rather invest his time and money in his family foundation. He and his wife, Dephne, award four university scholarships in the United States each year to students from the region in Turkey where he’s from.

Kent also is immensely proud of his late father’s legacy of when he was a consul in Marseilles, France, during World War II. The Germans were rounding up Sephardic Jews who were living in France. But many of them had previously lived in Turkey, which was neutral during the war. So Necdet Kent gave them Turkish passports, enabling them to go to Turkey, which basically saved their lives. He went as far as boarding a train with Jewish prisoners to the German border to make sure they would not be sent to concentration camps.

“He didn’t talk about any of this until the last few years of his life,” said Kent, who then quoted his father. “ ‘I did this because it was the right thing to do.’ I’m very blessed to have had a father like that.”

Kent said he was “born into a Muslim family,” and he is “proud of who I am.” But he also said that he is not a practicing Muslim.

Instead, during the interview, Kent showed an appreciation for the diversity of religions, ethnicities and cultures that make up the global community.

Now that he’s been Coca-Cola’s CEO for nearly five years, Kent, 60, was asked how long he expects to stay at the helm.

“As long as I can continue to add value and as long as I’m healthy and as long as the board, which represents our shareholders, thinks I’m the right person, I will continue because I love what I do,” Kent said.

“The most important legacy we as heads of businesses like Coca-Cola can leave behind are good people — nurture them, promote them, raise them, retain them, make them better so that … what happens after three or four years that a CEO is succeeded that the company continues to run on all cylinders. That to meis the biggest legacy.”

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