During a time when there’s been a lot of bad news for our leading soft drink company, there’s been one overwhelming positive, and that is the man at the very top: Muhtar Kent.
It appears to me that Kent came along at just the right time for Coke. His style of leadership is what this company, embattled in so many ways these days, really needs. In fact, Kent, a true man of the world, has become the face of Coke today during a time when Coca-Cola really needed a benevolent presence to counter all the criticism it is taking almost on a daily basis.
Look at Coke today and it’s almost as if there are two companies constantly being featured in the news: the one we see bashed every day for problems like the obesity epidemic, and then the one that is increasingly found on the world stage as a responsible, even admirable global citizen. Credit for much of the latter goes to Kent.
If you don’t know that much about Kent, a little background. Mark Pendergrast, in his definitive history, “For God, Country & Coca-Cola,” calls Kent: “The ultimate international Coca-Cola man,” and goes on to detail how he has worked for Coke since the age of 25. He was born in New York City, the son of a Turkish general consul, Pendergrast details, was educated in private schools in Turkey, and also lived in Thailand, India and Iran while his father was an ambassador in those countries. He speaks fluent English, Turkish, Italian and French, writes Pendergrast, who goes on to add that “at 6’1”, Kent has a commanding, tough nonthreatening presence with a friendly, gregarious demeanor.” Pendergrast also says that Kent’s father apparently served as a strong role model for the young Kent, describing him as having a “strong humanitarian bent.” In fact, during World War II he helped save Turkish Jews from the gas chambers while serving as consul general in Marseilles.
Such a humanitarian bent is quite evident when looking at Kent’s piloting of the huge multinational conglomerate that is Coke: when he is advocating for women’s empowerment around the world, or appearing at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting—as he did just as I was writing this in late September—to make a global partnership announcement with other multi-national organizations to bring safe water access, basic necessities and employment opportunities to communities around the world.
If there’s any criticism to level against Kent, it might be that the U.S. business seems neglected with all of his international focus. After all, the cola business Coke was built on is struggling to reverse consistent declines. It could be argued Kent needs to confront head-on what is ailing the U.S. soda business with the energy and verve he has confronted these other global issues.
Nevertheless, I recently asked Pendergrast what he though about Coke’s recent leaders and he responded: “I think a huge amount of credit goes to those two men. Neville Isdell turned the ship in the right direction, and Muhtar Kent is powering it full steam ahead.”