Don Keough – an executive who found the magic in Coca-Cola – passes away

By Maria Saporta

Updated with services information.

Atlanta – and the entire Coca-Cola family worldwide – has lost a dear friend – Don Keough.

Keough, 88, served as president, chief operating officer and director of the Coca-Cola Co. over a span of decades – often serving as the public face of the company – especially to those he considered to be on the front line of the business – the bottlers and the retailers.

To many, Keough was Coca-Cola’s polar bear – the popular executive who was generous with his hugs and his warmth to those around him.

Keough passed away Tuesday morning. He was with his wife, Mickie, and his large family at his side.

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent issued a memo to company associates expressing his deep sadness and personal loss.

Don Keough

Don Keough and Coca-Cola (Special)

“Don Keough was an exceptional builder of organizations and people and an inspiration to all those hoping to carry the title of leader,” Kent wrote in his memo. “Speaking personally, and I know on behalf of all whose lives he touched, he was a man who challenged us, inspired us and changed us. ”

Keough once told me that Coca-Cola was “magic.” It was not just colored, carbonated sugar water. The marketing genius behind Coke was that having a Coke gave you a smile, it brought you happiness, it brought magic into your life. At least, that was what it was supposed to do if the marketing executives at the company had been successful.

In his memo, Kent said that Keough understood “brand love” at a deeply personal level.

“Our brands were something far more than products to him,” Kent wrote. “They were a trust and a legacy; an asset beyond value and the key to our future.

“He once told me how he had a very simple view of his job. He said, ‘Every day I come in, I want to polish our brand – make it shine just a little brighter, sparkle just a little bit more.’ Those words come back to me every single day, wherever I am in the world. ”

Even though Keough retired as president in 1993, he continued to remain as an influential presence in company circles. Two of his closest friends were two of the company’s largest shareholders – Warren Buffett and Herb Allen.

It was always smart for a Coca-Cola CEO to listen to Keough and pay attention to what he had to say. Eventually, in 2004, Keough was invited to join the board as a director – serving until 2014 when he became an advisor to the board.

“The world has lost a giant of a man in Don Keough. And we at Coca-Cola have lost an extraordinary leader, mentor and friend,” Kent wrote. “Please join me in keeping Don’s family in your thoughts and prayers during this time of grief and sorrow.”

A visitation will be held on Monday, March 2, and a funeral service on Tuesday, March 3, both at the Cathedral of Christ the King, located at 2699 Peachtree Road in Atlanta.

Visitation will be held from 5-7 pm on Monday, March 2 in the Cathedral. The funeral for Donald Keough will be held at 10 am on Tuesday, March 3.

The family has requested donations in lieu of flowers. Charities to make donations to are: Emory – St. Joseph’s Hospital; the High Museum; the Atlanta Opera, the Lovett School; Notre Dame University; Cathedral of Christ the King.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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