Even with this slight uptick in the economy, Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt “Corporations Are People” Romney, and the staunch Occupy Wall Street folks helping hurricane victims instead of invading public parks to decry financial institutions, now is not necessarily the best time for a CEO to write a memoir. This is not to say that Neville Isdell should have spent his time doing something other than write Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Popular Brand. Isdell, along with writer David Beasley, has documented his career at the Coca-Cola Company in the kind of open and straightforward prose that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from the chairman of the place whose raison d’être is a top-secret formula. Inside Coca-Cola has the opportunity to be something rare in 2012: a corporate narrative that affirms human potential instead of human greed.
This is a scrupulous memoir from a scrupulous executive. Isdell opens his book not with a hymn of praise toward the company at which he spent the entirety of his working life, but with a litany of ugly facts. At the time he was anointed CEO and chairman in 2004, Isdell was just beginning to enjoy an incredibly cushy tropical retirement. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola was mired in accusations of artificial price-raising in Japan, hiring “death squads” to attack unions in Colombia, using discriminatory hiring practices in the U.S., breaking antitrust laws in Europe. Isdell notes all of this, receives phone calls from higher-ups asking him to take the reins, states he won’t do the job, and then accepts it with grim excitement: “The game was on.”
The fact that Isdell introduces his beloved corporation by listing its faults is a testament to the kind of leader he is. Of his co-workers, he writes: “They knew that my soft, collaborative side could be backed by a hard edge.” The hard edges are the most compelling elements of Inside Coca-Cola. Without Isdell’s anecdotes of conniving ex-employees (the exec who soured Coca-Cola’s relationship with McDonald’s by bragging of a superior contract with Subway), mischievous marketing execs who berate ad agencies (“You see that [twist-off] cap? That is what it is all about. You be back here in twenty-four hours with artwork that makes the cap stand out like a dog’s balls”), and bottling plants that abut brothels, the book would be a soft-spined ode rather than a no-nonsense history.
Isdell isn’t shy about his own privileged position as an executive, either. His “expensive suits”, multiple residences and lucrative stock options all appear on many a page. On a scale from “whitewashed” to “warts and all”, Isdell sticks closer to uglier truths.
The problem is that the ugly truths don’t seem ugly when colored with Isdell’s pretenseless storytelling. Over the course of eight neat chapters, Isdell details his rise from Northern Irish lad to burgeoning college-age activist in apartheid-era South Africa to international Coca-Cola employee (beginning in 1964 as a lowly bottler with a $1,100 salary, then a marketing manager, then head of various departments and territories from the Philippines to West Germany) without breaking a sweat. Even in situations when “failure is almost certain”, when there is “palpable consumer backlash” and when stock analysts and press “[are] not being kind”, Isdell powers through it with clever strategies or innovative manifestos or outright risk-taking, all of which works like a charm, so profits go up and market share is captured and even “members of a remote indigenous tribe” in the Philippines drink Coke and fall in love.
This story must be told from on high because Isdell has no other choice. Still, his plot has the same frictionless linearity as his upward progress through the Coca-Cola Company. We know effort was made, but on the page, it looks effortless.
Inside Coca-Cola, stripped of all the corporate machismo, could be a fascinating travel and history memoir. Isdell skips from Africa to Southeast Asia to America to India with his patient wife and child in tow. He’s in the right place at the right time for momentous historical events, the Soweto uprising in 1976, the Berlin Wall falling in 1989, Russia’s transition to capitalism in the early ‘90s. Of course, it’s impossible to excise the business from the international history, given the business shapes history itself. Russia transitioned to capitalism owing to Coke’s legal finagling; Isdell flicked the switch on the first neon sign in Moscow—a Coke sign, naturally.
There is pleasure in reading about Isdell as judicious world citizen, reading up on particular cultures before his airplane hits the runway. This is an intelligent human move—in Germany he makes plenty of “du” friends, i.e,. friends that are familiar enough to use the more intimate “you” pronoun—but also, obviously, a smart business move. Corporations are not people, but they are made of people and led by people; Isdell’s guilelessness extends to his abundant interpersonal skills. He is affable to a fault. The only entity that draws his ire and pity is Pepsi, portrayed here as a brainless institution, a Napoleonic beverage capable of conquering territories temporarily before bowing down to what the people really want.
A moral man works his way through and up the “world’s most popular brand”—good story, but for what purpose? Isdell devotes the last chapter of his memoir to a theory he calls “Connected Capitalism”: corporations should be socially responsible while managing to reap profits for themselves. It’s the perfect theory for a social worker turned CEO. But Isdell could have helmed any multinational corporation. Why Coca-Cola in particular?
“I have a belief system that when the Good Lord created the world, he created Coke number one and Pepsi number two,” he writes. His father warns him early on: “Don’t sell something you don’t believe in.” When Coca-Cola builds a bottling plant in Poland (the first in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism), the chaplain of the Solidarity movement gathers his parishioners in a church and promises that Coke’s arrival will be a boon for the economy. To Isdell, it sounds “almost as if he were telling members of his congregation that if they didn’t drink at least one Coke every morning, they would be sentenced to eternal damnation.”
It’s a joke in the book, but within Isdell’s belief system, it’s also true. His message is social responsible capitalism, but his impetus is the drink: Isdell as high priest of Connected Capitalism, Coke as holy water.