ATLANTA – Muhtar Kent, who joined The Coca-Cola Company in 1978 after responding to a classified ad and climbed to the company’s highest office in 2008, today officially passes the CEO baton to James Quincey.

We sat down with Kent, who will remain chairman of the board, to reflect on his nearly nine-year tenure as the company’s chief executive – and get his thoughts on the future of the Coca-Cola system.

What made you respond to that classifed ad? Can you describe your first job at Coke, and share any lessons learned in that role that have guided you throughout your career? 

I was working for a bank in New York City at the time. I knew banking wasn't for me the first day on the job. I of course knew Coca-Cola the product – I was a loyal consumer – but I didn’t know anything about the company. So I sent in my CV, and they invited me to Atlanta. I flew down and came to the four-story red brick building over there (pointing) to meet with a few people. This building we’re in now had not been built yet. I went back up to New York and got a note back saying we’d like you to come down again. During that follow-up meeting they told me, “We’d like to offer you a job on a Coke truck.” And I said, “That’s not what I was expecting, but it sounds nice.” 

I went into a bottler sales development training program. There were 14 or 15 of us from all around the world. It was an incredible experience, getting up at 4 a.m. every day, loading Coke trucks and setting shelves in supermarkets and community stores. That started my love for the retail business that has continued for the last 39 years. Every year that passes, I learn something new by being in the marketplace. Because the points of impact for the Coca-Cola business are the more than 24 million retail outlets we passionately serve each week with one of the largest, most pervasive distribution systems in the world. It’s where that one dollar, or 10 rupees or six renminbi, changes hands.  

What about that job made it the perfect entry into the Coca-Cola system?

It started at the point of impact. All of us in the corporate center… in all business units, in each one of our 250 bottling partners around the world… work towards the goal of making that point of impact more conducive to our business. We’re making sure the point of impact works better for our customers, consumers and, therefore, for us. 

You were born in the U.S., raised in Thailand, India, Iran and Turkey, and educated in the U.K. How did living in so many different places, and experiencing so many cultures, shape your career in global business?

First and foremost, it taught me to be comfortable with people of all cultures, all backgrounds, all religions, all races, all languages. It made me embrace the values of inclusiveness, integration and diversity. Secondly, as a business person, it taught me that diverse points of view deliver better results. I never imagined I would find myself, in ’78, in the business that would become the most international company in the United States, where so many people from so many different backgrounds work together towards one goal of creating inclusive value for a host of stakeholders. I consider myself amazingly privileged to – through that classified ad – get to a place that became my home for the next 40 years.

When you became CEO in July 2008, what were your top priorities?  

Neville [Isdell] had stabilized the company and transferred to me a company that was stronger than when he found it, for sure. What was needed then was an agenda of growth. We put together a compelling vision, together with our bottling system, and launched it in 2009. In the past, we'd had visions that were specific to the company, but this was the first system-wide vision ever launched. We needed to bring in our bottling partners and have them embrace and co-create this vision with us. And that’s what we did.  

The second priority for me was to put together a growth agenda and bring to the forefront the value of all our brands in this new vision, and make them stronger. We embarked upon a host of strategies that paid off and, today, are transferring a company that is foundationally much stronger with a much more aligned bottling system than the one I took over. And I’m sure this improvement will continue into the years ahead.

'We embarked upon a host of strategies that paid off and, today, are transferring a company that is foundationally much stronger with a much more aligned bottling system than the one I took over. And I’m sure this improvement will continue into the years ahead.'

What excited you most when you came into the CEO role?

A couple of things. I was coming in from a bottler, so I had a unique perspective few people in the company had. I worked within the company for the first 20 years of my life, then left and became a bottler. I grew and IPO’d that bottler on the London Stock Exchange. And then I came back to the company, at the invitation from Neville, and ran our Asia business. Although I'd lived in Thailand as a child, I’d never really been involved in our Asian business. I’d been involved in our European, Middle Eastern, North African businesses – and also through Coca-Cola Amatil, a little bit in Australasia – but never really China and the Asian sphere of influence. So that was very intriguing to me. And it was very appealing to work with Neville again, my very close friend and partner from our work together in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1990s.

You have led the evolution of the global bottling system, including refranchising territories across North America, Germany, China and Africa to strong and capable bottling partners. Why is this work so important, and what most excites you about the Coca-Cola franchise system of the future?

We cannot, as a company, succeed if our bottlers are not successful. It’s that symbiotic a relationship. And part of what we do every day, apart from polishing our brands, is making sure our bottling system is aligned and fully buys into our strategy. If we take the right actions, then our 250 or so bottlers around the world decide to invest in the business. And when they make investments in new trucks, new lines, new factories, new cold drink equipment, new people on the commercial end of the business – coupled with the creative marketing we are responsible for, and guided by the strategy we set – then our business prospers. So, strengthening the bottling system, which hadn't had a unified transformation for a long time, was a critical priority. This is probably the biggest, most cohesive transformation of the structural Coca-Cola bottling business ever undertaken in the 131-year history of Coca-Cola. Fifty-five percent of the global bottling business has been restructured over the last three years, and I’m very proud of that.

What else, looking back over the last nine years, are you most proud of?

We’ve created $110 billion of shareholder value since the beginning of 2009, which is bigger than the total market cap of many Fortune 500 companies. We’ve made the company much stronger through a $3.8 billion productivity program, and redeployed a lot of that money into better and more marketing. We’ve launched 1,000 new products. We’ve taken our daily servings from 1.4 billion to 1.9 billion. We’ve added nine new billion-dollar brands. And we’ve delivered 39 consecutive quarters of share gains.  

But, most importantly, is the seamless leadership transition that is taking place now. The most important responsibility for a board of a company and for the CEO is who he or she leaves behind in terms of the next cadre of leaders. And that's why I am most proud of ensuring a seamless senior leadership transition by bringing in James as chief operating officer and having the board promote him to CEO, and now supporting him in every way I can as chairman of the board. It’s something that gives and will continue to give me great pride. 

Kent received a standing ovation at Coke's 2017 Annual Shareowners Meeting on April 26, 2017.

You remain chairman of the board. What will your priorities be?

It’s very simple. I’m here to complete the transition and support James in any way he deems appropriate, and also to handle all matters of strategy with our board.

Throughout your time as CEO, you’ve used the term 'constructively discontent' to describe both your outlook and the mindset you’ve challenged all Coca-Cola system associates to embrace. Why?

I shamelessly borrowed that from Mr. Robert Woodruff. He liked to say that “the world belongs to the discontented,” particularly in the last period of his leadership. We can easily fall into the trap – in the Coca-Cola world, where we are one of the most pervasive brands in the world and where our business card is known to everyone – of getting too comfortable. So I think we have to constantly challenge ourselves to think constructively as to what more we can do. It's a wonderful thing to be invited into consumers’ lives more than 1.9 billion times every day, but at the same time, when you think that the 2.3 billion households in the world each consume 26 beverages every day, and that less than two of those beverages are ours, then that immediately makes you constructively discontent. It puts a little bit more energy into your thinking as to what more you can do to polish your brands and create more products consumers want... so those two out of 26 can become four, then six, then eight, and so on. 

Who were your role models at Coca-Cola, and what did you learn from them? 

Don Keough, who was the greatest Coca-Cola ambassador in the world. He understood business principles better than anyone I’ve known. During my time as a business unit president, I got to know Don very well, and he mentored me throughout my life. We became very close friends. Neville and I worked very closely in Eastern and Central Europe during the charge after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when we built 24 plants in 27 months. I greatly admire the amazing priority Roberto (Goizueta) gave to shareholders in his time as CEO. Also the late Andrew David, who was at the time chairman and chief executive officer of Coca-Cola Hellenic. He taught me so many new things about how simplifying your business helps you actually achieve much more. We worked amazingly closely together in Eastern and Central Europe, where we would travel together and make plans. He was a smoker, so he would write everything we’d agreed to on the back of a cigarette pack. That’s how we did business when we traveled every week, building plants and creating new businesses together. And I had the incredible privilege to meet Robert Woodruff in person two or three times when he was head of the finance committee. 

You started out with The Coca-Cola Company nearly 40 years ago. What do you think this company will look like 40 years from now?

For the first 90 years or so, we were a one-product, one-brand company. Over the last 30 to 40 years, we’ve added almost 4,000 new products, more than 500 brands, and many new packaging and equipment innovations. I think the beverage business will develop over the next 20 to 30 years in three distinct ways. One way will continue to be bottled or canned and served to the consumer in a ready-to-drink package. The second is the incremental consumption occasions created through technology at foodservice outlets. Coca-Cola Freestyle is a great example, but there will be many, many iterations of that over the next 30 to 40 years. And the third is technology-enhanced incremental consumption occasions at home. I think that's how the business will evolve and we, through our innovation, reformulation and more, will be at the forefront of this development. Also digitization, how we connect with consumers in ways we cannot even think about today. 

How has the role of a Fortune 500 CEO evolved over the last decade? Are there skills and traits that are needed today that perhaps were not as important a decade ago?

More multitasking. A greater need to change altitude faster. You have to be informed about everything, and everyone wants your time. You have to make sure you are the only manager of your time and that you don't get swallowed by things everybody wants you to do. And finally, you have to be able to go from 40,000 feet down to 1,000 feet, or even 100 feet, multiple times every single day. Only then can you really succeed. The final thing is to understand how important it is to create a socially inclusive business model. You can only optimize long-term shareholder value if you create value for a host of stakeholders. That, I think, is something that is more critical than ever before. 

In the 21st Century, you can’t just create a strategy to generate maximum value for your shareholders. You have to create value for a host of stakeholders in an inclusive manner. It starts with your associates, bottling partners, consumers and customers, and also includes supply chain partners, NGOs, civil society organizations and governments that host us in more than 207 nations. You create value for all of them. And through that, you optimize long-term sustainable value creation for shareholders.

That's the inclusive model we embrace at Coca-Cola. It’s what keeps our brands relevant and connects them with consumers more than 1.9 billion times every day. No longer are we simply obligated to make great-tasting beverages. We have to also make sure the character of the company is in line with what is expected by 7 billion consumers around the world. And that's why our “3 W” priorities of water, women and well-being have served us so well in this new inclusive, socially connected business model. 

You’ve described yourself as a relentless optimist when it comes not only to the Coke business but to the beverage industry as a whole. Why? And what gives you that confidence as you look at the company’s road ahead?  

You have to have an optimistic attitude to be successful as a business leader… and see the glass as always half full, not half empty. I've always believed that, and it has always worked for me. There’s no better way to fail than to see the glass as half empty.

As I told our shareowners at our annual meeting this year and last year, we manage this business for the next quarter also for the next quarter of a century. That's why I believe the future is so bright for The Coca-Cola Company. We are managing it for the long term and have a stronger foundation upon which to successfully build many, many more floors.

'I am most proud of ensuring a seamless senior leadership transition by bringing in James as chief operating officer and having the board promote him to CEO, and now supporting him in every way I can as chairman of the board.'

If you were going to be a business unit president for the company starting tomorrow, where would you want to be and why?

I wouldn’t pick any one market over another. But I can't tell you how excited I am when I meet with our business unit presidents. It takes me back to 1989 when I became a deputy business unit president and, in 1990, a business unit president. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I think the same excitement exists today with the change that is occurring in the world – whether it’s China or Japan or the Middle East or Latin America or Eurasia or Western Europe. 

What do you want your legacy to be?

For James to continue to succeed and grow this business on a sustainable basis, which I have every confidence he and his leadership team will do. That’s what I’ve strived for every day of my career and especially these last nine years running the business – to make sure that those who come after me continue to flourish.

Follow Muhtar Kent on Twitter (@MuhtarKent) and on LinkedIn.