By Maria Saporta
Atlanta and the Coca-Cola Co. can be described as having a “great love story,” according to Muhtar Kent, the chairman and CEO of 125-year beverage company.
Kent was the keynote speaker at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta Friday at the Commerce Club where he shared both super-global and super-local thoughts on the current state of affairs.
But Kent devoted much of his talk to reiterating the company’s devotion and appreciation of its hometown.
Back in 1886, the first Coke was served at Jacob’s Pharmacy at Five Points just a few blocks south of the current location of the Commerce Club at 191 Peachtree St. Back in May, Coca-Cola lit up its North Avenue headquarters into a big thank you card to Atlanta.
“Today is, in part, a continuation of that display — a chance for me to say thank you to the leadership of this great city that we’re so proud to call home,” Kent said. “Atlanta and Coca-Cola have grown in tandem for 125 years.”
Both the city and the company have experienced ups and downs over the decades, but both have prospered through the years.
“It is, in many ways, a great love story between a company and a city, between a brand and a community, between the people of Coca-Cola and the friends and neighbors we’re honored to work alongside every day,” Kent said. “The special relationship goes back as far as any of us can remember and beyond.”
Kent then reminded the audience of international, academic, business and community leaders of the many ways that Coca-Cola and its investors have contributed to the community — Emory University, the Woodruff Arts Center, the Atlanta University Center, the Centers for Disease Control and even the Varsity.
“Atlanta gave birth to Coca-Cola, embraced Coca-Cola and loved Coca-Cola before any other community in the world,” Kent said. “Atlanta gave us our formula, our character, our culture, our values, our sense of fun and family and hospitality. Simply put, there would be no Coca-Cola without Atlanta and Atlantans.”
Kent went on to say: “From day one, Atlantans have been our leaders and our associates, our most enthusiastic customers, investors, boosters and fans. Even now, about 10 percent of our stock, or about $15 billion is owned by Georgians and Georgia institutions.”
And Georgia has benefited from Coca-Cola’s presence. In 2010, $350 million in Coca-Cola dividends were pumped into the state’s economy.
Although Kent described the current economic climate around the globe as “mixed,” he was particularly optimistic about the long-term vibrancy in the United States, mainly due to six factors.
1. The United States is growing and will likely add between 70 million and 100 million people over the next 40 years. U.S. fertility rates are the highest in the developed world.
2. The U.S. population is relatively young. By 2050, only a quarter of the country’s population will be over 60.
3. It’s diverse. The United States remains the top destination for immigrants, and nearly a quarter of all new ventures launched since 1990 have been by these new Americans.
4. The United States is enterprising. Two out of three new jobs in the country were created by businesses less than five years old.
5. It’s innovative. The United States produces more patents and inventions than the rest of the world combined.
6. And it’s a generous nation. Americans give more than $300 billion a year to charitable causes, and its philanthropic ethic is a “beacon” for the rest of the world.
Kent said that all those same qualities can be found in Atlanta.
“Just as America is the world’s most global and culturally diverse country, Atlanta is a microcosm of that larger whole,” he said. “New jobs, new investments, new energy and vitality — all traits we associate with Atlanta.”
But issues do exist. And although he didn’t mention Georgia’s restrictive immigration stance by name, Kent made sure to highlight some of Atlanta’s most successful immigrants, including one of his predecessors — Roberto Goizueta.
“As a city and a state, I believe we must continue to be open and welcoming,” said Kent, who as the son of Turkish diplomat, was born in the 1950s in New York City.
The Atlanta region also “must protect the vital infrastructure that fueled our rise as a global city,” Kent stressed. Examples include Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, its railroads and other links to the rest of the world.
“To keep growing and prospering, I believe we must keep enhancing our transportation infrastructure: mass transit — yes; roads and bridges — yes; bike lanes and trails — yes; and commuter alternatives — yes,” Kent said. “For our part, Coca-Cola is committed to being part of the larger solution.”
Despite the struggling economy with high unemployment and financially-stretched home-owners, Kent said: “I believe our best days are ahead.”
After all, during the 125-year love story between Atlanta and Coca-Cola, the community has “overcome” more difficult times.
“Resilience is part of our DNA,” Kent said, adding that Coca-Cola will continue to “be engaged and supportive of every aspect of public life in this city.” In particular, Kent singled out the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which will honor Atlanta’s two Nobel Peace Prize recipients — Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Jimmy Carter.
“Today, as Coca-Cola strives to make a positive difference in every community we serve, all around the globe, we cannot and will not forget our hometown — the place that has given, and continues to give, so richly to us,” Kent said. “We believe in this city. We love our friends and neighbors here. And we look forward to contributing to the well-being of Atlanta for the next 125 years and beyond.”