Commentary

Don Keough, Beloved Coca-Cola President And New Coke Frontman, Dies At 88

Donald R. Keough, who deftly steered Coca-Cola Co. through its New Coke fiasco in the 1980s and never spied a hand he wasn’t ready to earnestly embrace, died in Atlanta yesterday of pneumonia at 88. After serving as president and COO from 1981 to 1993 — “a period of unprecedented growth,” as the company points out in its obituary, he had retired from Coke’s board of directors only two years ago and remained an advisor to it.

“Today we lost one of the truly great leaders of not only The Coca-Cola Company and system, but also the broader arenas of business, philanthropy and education,” writes company chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent. 

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“We talk today about ‘brand love,’” Kent said later in his statement. “Don understood those words at a deeply personal level. Our brands were something far more than products to him. They were a trust and a legacy; an asset beyond value and the key to our future.”

“Longtime friend Warren Buffett said Tuesday: ‘You can sum up Don Keough’s life in three words: Everybody loved him,’” reports the Omaha World-Herald’s Steve Jordan. 

“When you were with Mr. Keough, you felt his laser focus on you and what you were saying,” John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, tells the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “If we are fortunate in our lives, we get to know one or a very few great people,” he added. “Don Keough was a great man.”

“Keough grew up on a farm near Sioux City, [Iowa,] the son of a cattleman and an Irish-American mother who pushed him to do his best,” the World-Herald’s Jordan relates, but later moved to Omaha, where he hosted a TV talk show on WOW-TV that aired just before Johnny Carson’s “Carson’s Corner.” 

Buffett lived near Keough, who joined the board of directors of Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, which is Coca-Cola’s largest shareholder, in 2003.

Keough took a job with Paxton & Gallagher, the maker of his show’s sponsor, Butter-Nut Coffee, in 1950. The company was acquired by Duncan Foods, which itself was acquired by Coca-Cola in 1960, and Keough began his climb to his perch at the top of the Cola Wars. 

“The jovial Irish-American won a reputation as an unrivaled Coke salesman, running the flagship U.S. business before Chief Executive Roberto C. Goizueta made him his top deputy,” writes Mike Esterl in the Wall Street Journal.

“Messrs. Goizueta and Keough worked closely together and Coke’s sales and shares soared under their leadership. While Mr. Goizueta focused on financial strategy, Mr. Keough was the company’s global ambassador, negotiating with overseas bottlers and overseeing key relationships with customers like McDonald’s Corp. and with Mr. Buffett. A gregarious leader, he also would often sit and talk with rank-and-file employees in Coke’s cafeteria.”

Keogh’s press conference remarks when the original Coke formula was returned to retailers’ shelves as Classic Coke is a classic exercise in an assertive but gracious corporate apologia.

“All of the time and money and skill that we poured into consumer research could not reveal the depth of feeling for the original taste of Coca-Cola,” Keough said, Stephanie Strom reports in the New York Times. “‘Some cynics say we planned the whole thing’ as a marketing ploy to drive up sales, he said. ‘The truth is we are not that dumb and we are not that smart.’”

Keough wrote a “how not-to” book titled The Ten Commandments for Business Failure in 2008 which includes nuggets such as “stop taking risks; be inflexible; isolate yourself; assume infallibility; play the game close to the foul line …; don’t take time to think; put all your faith in outside consultants; love your bureaucracy; send mixed messages; and be afraid of the future,” according to its Booklist review.

He served as chairman of board of trustees at the University of Notre Dame, which five of his six children attended, and donated about $50 million to the institution over the years. The Keough School of Global Affairs — “the first new school to be established at Notre Dame in nearly a century,” according to the university’s in memoriam statement — is only one of his notable contributions to the institution, where he remained on the board.

He was also chairman of Allen & Co., the investment-banking firm, and served on many other boards over the years.

Keough is survived by Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, three daughters, three sons, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A funeral Mass will be celebrated March 3 at The Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta.

When Keough was asked what the secret to his success was, he once toldLeaders magazine: “It’s the tendency of very successful operations to get trapped in their own ‘success,’ and I never allowed that word to be used in my presence. I see success as a journey, not a destination.”

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