As chairman and chief executive of the soft drinks giant, Co Down-born Neville Isdell pushed the firm into new markets and restored its fortunes in others. Now retired, he talks to Symon Ross about his career and how Northern Ireland companies can compete on the international stage
One of the few Ulstermen ever to have led a Fortune 50 company, Neville Isdell retains strong links with Northern Ireland.
Until recently the chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola, he was born in Downpatrick in 1944 and lived in Belfast, where he attended Somerton House, the former prep for Belfast High School.
When he was 10 his father, a policeman and fingerprinting expert, moved the family to Rhodesia.
Mr Isdell splits his time between the Caribbean and France these days, but returns to the country of his birth every 18 months to visit family.
On his most recent visit he received an honorary degree for services to business and commerce from Queen’s University. It was the university he had aspired to attend in his youth, before opting for the University of Capetown in South Africa.
“It’s very special in that it was the university my parents wanted me to go to and the one I looked at in Northern Ireland. So it was a great honour to get a doctorate,” he told Business Telegraph.
Speaking from his residence in Marseilles, Mr Isdell clearly retains a hint of his Northern Irish accent. But also considers himself a son of Africa.
He was a member of his university’s student council, and involved in protests against apartheid in the 1960s, and says his social views also influenced his career.
“I have always been someone who has never liked the extremes. A racial or sectarian divide was not something I could accept — I always said we needed to make a middle ground.
“There is a linkage with sectarianism and the racial divide in South Africa. I always thought that building bridges was the way forward and that has informed my business career as well. The middle ground is sometimes a difficult place to be but it is the only way you can carry the majority of people with you to make a fundamental change,” he said.
Mr Isdell’s background also led him to avoid an authoritarian style of leadership in favour of a team ethic he says is embodied in the Irish rugby team, of which he is a fanatical follower.
“Emotional intelligence is required and when you are brought up in a divided society you understand that.
“I look for the best in people and try to accentuate it. That has driven me in my overall philosophy and my business philosophy. I build a good team around me and use them to get the answer.
“I also believe in strong leadership. There are few decisions you ever make with perfect knowledge and no decision that’s 100% right, so you read it and make your decision and stick with it. You need to know how to admit when you’re wrong, but if you keep looking over your shoulder you’ll never get anywhere,” he said.
Mr Isdell joined a local Coca-Cola bottling company in Zambia in 1966 after attending Harvard Business School’s management development programme.
Rising quickly he became general manager of the largest Coca-Cola bottler in Africa in 1972, was region manager for Australia by 1980 and, in 1981, oversaw the turnaround of a struggling Coca-Cola joint venture in the Philippines.
After a stint in Germany he took responsibility for Coke’s Europe and Middle East group in the late 1980s, and became boss of greater Europe in 1995.
Mr Isdell also managed Coca-Cola’s merger with Hellenic Bottling and ran the company from its 1998 formation until 2000, though he says the location of Hellenic’s new factory in Ulster was taken based on sound business judgement — its Dublin facility had run out of space — rather than any sort of allegiance to the province.
He retired for the first time in 2001 to Barbados. But in 2004, with Coca-Cola’s reputation slipping slightly and Wall Street questioning its ability to adapt to a changing marketplace, he was recalled to take over the top job and reinvigorate the business.
After successfully achieving this he stepped down as CEO last year and as chairman in April, handing the reins to Muhter Kent, and his main business role is as a board member of troubled car giant General Motors. It is on record
that Mr Isdell received total compensation of $21.7m while CEO of Coca-Cola in 2007, including stocks and options.
Part of his success has been analysing where markets are going, rather than where they are now — a philosophy he believes applies more than ever during a recession.
Mr Isdell notes Coca-Cola — which owns four of the world’s top five non-alcoholic beverage brands — continues to invest the same amount in marketing but the impact is greater because competition is not.
“If you are struggling with cashflow and fighting for survival you don’t have many options. But if you are in reasonable shape this is the time to invest because the competition is weak. The time you gain market share is in times of recession,” he said. Isdell has lived in 11 countries across all five continents, and he believes the outlook for Northern Ireland is healthy, despite the recession.
“First of all every time I go back I see an improvement in the infrastructure and general life and security. I remember the days when you got searched on your way into Royal Avenue. There is a vibrancy back to Belfast that hasn’t existed for 40-50 years and it’s wonderful to see,” he said.
“The private sector has a vibrancy because of the quality of the education system and the intellectual capital that exists here. It was always a beacon that was kept burning through all of the Troubles — education was always an important part of society and is one of the advantages Northern Ireland has.”
Northern Ireland’s other advantage, he believes, is the diaspora — those who have emigrated but retain local ties, providing opportunities in international markets — and the proximity to the Republic.
“I believe Northern Ireland has the ability to internationalise and move up the value chain. There’s a naturally gregarious nature to being Irish and a level of neutrality, which is an advantage,” he believes.
“Northern Ireland is part of the UK but has its own identity. The Irish are well liked around the world — they have never had an empire and the diaspora is very important.
“While Northern Ireland needs its own personality it is important to be part of the all-island philosophy.”
Successes that added some fizz
Neville Isdell had an almost uninterrupted run of successes during his career, but he highlights three that stand out from his more than 40 years with the Coca-Cola Company.
The first was during his time at a bottling company in the Phillipines where he revitalised Coca-Cola’s fortunes in the country. When he arrived Coca-Cola was being outsold by Pepsi 3-1. Four years later the company outsold Pepsi 2-1. Isdell believes the experience helped hone the cultural side of his business skills by showing him that results are achieved in different ways in different countries.
The second memorable point was his part in negotiating deals into new markets including Eastern Europe and Russia after the end of the Cold War and Coca-Cola’s re-entry into India and the Middle East. He was the one who lit the Coca-Cola neon sign in Moscow’s Pushkin Square in 1989, the first trademark to be permanently displayed there among the red stars of the Soviet era.
Mr Isdell’s recall out of retirement to become chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola is his third obvious highlight. He charged employees with driving the change needed to reinvigorate the brand and ovesaw the launch of Coke Zero, its most successful launch product since Diet Coke 20 years ago. Capital value of the company has increased by $30bn and in the last two years it has seen double digit income rise.
He also notes his previous appearance in the Belfast Telegraph as a writer. Editor of his university paper, Isdell aspired to journalism at one point, and while in school had an article on the building of the Kariba Dam in Zambia published in the Belfast Telegraph.