By Maria Saporta
Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent has lived in some of the greatest cities of the world. So when he talks about Atlanta’s potential, it’s worth paying close attention.
“Atlanta has an opportunity to become a world-class sustainable city defined by smart growth, quality transportation infrastructure and world-class educators,” Kent said. “The greatest cities in the world are moving in that direction fast. Atlanta has an incredible opportunity take a lead.”
Kent spoke those words at Monday’s Atlanta Rotary Club, following a long line of Coca-Cola executives who have spoken to the organization that includes some of the city’s top leaders.
It was the first time Kent, who became Coca-Cola’s CEO in July, 2008, was making a major speech before an Atlanta audience.
Kent shared with the group his travel schedule of just the past couple of weeks. Mexico City. Tel Aviv, Israel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Bangkok, Thailand. Moscow.
“Each of these cities and their respective nations are in various stages of development,” Kent said. “All of them are on the move. All of them are investing heavily in their future and in the future of their people. There’s no reason Atlanta can’t become what it envisions. I believe our city and our region are here at a tipping point of sorts.”
Atlanta has long tradition of being ahead of its time. It was the city where the Civil Rights movement flourished. It was the city that was able to attract the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Now Atlanta can take a similar lead on the way it grows in the future.
“There’s a growing awareness and linkage between sustainability, the environment and quality of life,” said Kent, who specifically mentioned the beauty of Atlanta’s trees. “They’re ushering a new era for our city.”
So why is the CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. so interested in urban issues?
Kent answered that question in this way. A couple of years ago, the world passed a major milestone — more people now are living in cities than outside of cities.
“The shift from an agrarian society to cities is here,” Kent said. “Today the world is becoming more urban.”
Estimates show that 65 million people each year will continue moving from rural areas to cities, at least for the next decade. That’s equal to a new Atlanta region every 30 days.
That population shift will only exacerbate issues of scarce energy, basic food needs, limited natural resources, limited clean water supply. Calling it the “new equilibrium or the new normal,” Kent said the world has incredible opportunities and challenges, such as the relationship between the poorest and the wealthiest.
In talking about how these demographic and environmental shifts will impact the Coca-Cola Co., Kent said its brands are “affordable luxuries.” Also, “ready-to-drink beverages” are ideal for urban areas.
“Our industry is expected to grow by over $1 trillion by 2020, far outpacing other consumer categories,” he said.
But Coca-Cola also has a responsibility to make sure that it grows in sustainable ways. He repeated the company’s pledge to become “water neutral” by 2020, meaning it will return all the water that it uses by implementing the following course of action: recycle, replenish, reduce.
Kent also complimented Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for launching the Sustainable Atlanta program.
“I hope our next mayor embraces a similar attitude for action,” Kent said. Later he added: “Just like the Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta can’t get to the future in a vacuum. We have to work together on a shared vision.”
Then Kent said that his company “will continue to be engaged pro-actively in every aspect of the city,” such as the new Center for Civil and Human Rights. “It’s about how we can create success together.”