Belfast Telegraph

'I wanted to celebrate the influence of Irish people who have left the island'

Ex-Coke boss Neville Isdell talks with Margaret Canning about Brexit, his roots and setting up a museum in Dublin

Neville Isdell outside Belfast’s Titanic building
Neville Isdell outside Belfast’s Titanic building
Neville receiving an honorary degree from Queen’s University in 2009
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

He's the former Coca-Cola man from Co Down who's now invested in a building containing an emigration museum in Dublin.

Epic features many other people from Northern Ireland who, like Neville Isdell, have made their name overseas.

Returning to Belfast for meetings at Titanic Hotel - the former Harland and Wolff drawing offices - has an added resonance for the 74-year-old.

His maternal grandfather Thomas Smith was chief engineer at Harland and Wolff and received an MBE from George V in 1929 for services to shipbuilding.

Mr Isdell was chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola from 2004 to 2009. He left Northern Ireland at the age of 10 with his RUC father Ned, an expert in forensics and fingerprinting, and mother Margaret, for Zambia - then Northern Rhodesia.

Although born in Downpatrick, Co Down - and christened in Saul Church - the family had lived in Belfast before emigrating.

Mr Isdell's daughter and later, her son, were also christened there. He joined Coca-Cola in 1966 and worked for the company in 11 different countries, culminating in his tenure as chairman and chief executive.

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He's estimated to be worth $75m and admits that he has looked for investments in Northern Ireland.

"I did look at the Robinson & Cleaver building but it was a bit too much to chew. I have looked at a couple of other buildings but my plate is very full."

Mr Isdell is now happily retired from Coca-Cola and says he was never the type of company boss to continue to weigh in after retirement. "On April 22 2009 when I handed over to my successor I just said, 'It's all yours. Good luck."

For that reason, he won't weigh in on how the company in Northern Ireland could possibly solve the conundrum it will face in the event of a hard Brexit. But Coca-Cola HBC has lobbied heavily to ensure its interests as a company which regularly transports products across both sides of the border aren't jeopardised as a result of Brexit.

But he adds: "I do think Brexit is a bad idea for the UK and therefore Northern Ireland.

"I've been away from Coca-Cola for 10 years so I don't get to have input on managerial issues but I wouldn't know right now what Brexit is going to bring." He said he expected the company would be developing contingency plans to cover what might happen.

"But I would say that I think Brexit is a mistake. I don't think it's good for the UK and therefore I don't think it's good for Northern Ireland.

"However, I am a believer that out of every crisis comes an opportunity - though I don't know what those opportunities are going to be. You have Brexiteers trumpeting the upsides but I'm not sure that they are right."

When it comes to the US, "I'm not a friend of Donald Trump but I was never a great friend of Hillary Clinton, either."

He is now based in Barbados where he lives with his wife and daughter. But links with home are important to him.

In 2013, he bought the former Custom House Quay (CHQ) building - which used to be a wine and tobacco warehouse - in Dublin's IFSC for €10.1m, and also put up another €2m in development capital.

The building has shops, cafes and restaurants, and Dogpatch Labs, a co-working space for technology firms. It had been refurbished at a cost of around €41m in 2005.

Mr Isdell opened the emigration museum Epic last year in an investment of €15m. It's tipped to have 120,000 visitors this year, with hopes of doubling that number next year.

He also has ambitions to bring the building's overall occupancy to 100% next year. It's around 75% full at the moment.

"We would be about a year ahead of plan at the moment." Tenants now include a nano-brewery, Urban Brewing, Ely Bar and Grill, and a tapas bar.

But Mr Isdell says that people quibbled with the concept of a museum celebrating those who had left Ireland behind.

"But my view was that it was a story that was not being told. We had to talk about the history and travails of Irish people through history, discussing the level of success which people had going into the broader world and the impact that they had."

He said that the fact that he had lived outside Ireland from the age of 10 made it even more important for him. "I was advocating that there was something special about being Irish and I still believe that. That has been reinforced by Epic. People haven't always recognised just how influential the Irish have been."

And he adds that he is a "rugby Irishman" and sees the whole of Ireland as a complete entity. His rugby analogy takes Ireland "out of the political context".

The museum celebrates Northern Ireland people including Harry Ferguson, Liam Neeson, CS Lewis, Israeli politician Dr Chaim Herzog and footballer Danny Blanchflower. And among the lesser-known - but no less important - are Geraldine Heaney, the Co Armagh athlete who became a celebrated ice hockey coach in Canada.

But regardless of how well established Epic becomes, it's unlikely to ever gain the same brand recognition as another career legacy - Coke Zero.

Mr Isdell says he developed the idea of the brand as a zero-calorie alternative to Coke which replicated its taste more than existing sugar-free brand, Diet Coke. "It's my baby and every much my brand legacy from Coke."

And he says it's for others to judge whether he achieved his other aims at Coke. "As to what my main legacy was, my job was to turn it around because it was in difficulty in 2004. If you were to talk to people, hopefully they would say I left it to my successor in better shape than I found it in."

And he's proud of his achievements so far at CHQ. The number of desks operating out of Dogpatch has grown from 30 to 200, and numbers of daily visitors have grown from 350 to 500 a day, to around 7,000.

As he spent a large part of his life in Zambia - which borders Zimbabwe - it's impossible not to ask him what he thinks of the coup to topple dictator Robert Mugabe.

While he knows Zimbabwe well, he never met Mugabe and says he's glad their paths haven't crossed.

As to what his successor might bring: "I couldn't imagine anyone being worse than Mugabe or his wife."

He adds: "I think what's happened in Zimbabwe under Mugabe's leadership is a tragedy."

The country has a well-educated population - the only problem is, they have mostly emigrated.

"I have an apartment in Capetown and when I take Ubers, it seems about 80% of the drivers are Zimbabwean, from all kinds of backgrounds. They are driving taxis just so that they can send money home to their families."

And nine years on after leaving Coca-Cola, I put the 'P' word to him. As a Coca-Cola man, can he say the word 'Pepsi'?

"It used to be that way, that you didn't use the word Pepsi. But I'm not frightened to talk about it. Not to say the word is denying that it's a competitor and that people drink it."

Belfast Telegraph