Keough an affable but tough Coke leader

Donald “Don” Raymond Keough often said his daily goal at Coca-Cola was to polish the world’s leading beverage brand by making it shine a little brighter and sparkle a little more.

As the No. 2 executive at Coke, Keough helped legendary CEO Robert Goizueta strengthen Coke’s brand around the world, build stronger bonds with bottlers and even turn around a fiasco of their own creation — New Coke.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Don Keough's career

Years later a humbled Keough noted that some cynics suggested he and Goizueta orchestrated the “New Coke” debacle to boost sales of old Coke.

“The truth is, we’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart,” he said.

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Keough, who was also involved in education and the arts over more than 50 years of work and philanthropy, died Tuesday morning. He was 88.

Visitation will be March 2 at Cathedral of Christ The King, 2699 Peachtree Road. The funeral will be at the church March 3. Times for both have yet to be determined.

The former Coke leader, who was president and chief operating officer from 1981 to 1993, had been hospitalized for pneumonia in recent weeks at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, according to Coca-Cola. He was surrounded by family when he died.

“We talk today about “brand love,”’ Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said in a memo to company employees early Tuesday. “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.”

Warren Buffett, a longtime friend of Keough whose company is Coke’s largest shareholder, said in a statement: “You can sum up Don Keough’s life in three words: Everybody loved him.”

Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum of Art, where Keough and his wife have been longtime benefactors, said Don Keough inspired him every time they spoke. Having traveled the globe for Coke, Keough connected the High with art that the museum may not have known existed, Shapiro said.

“He had a global network that he was willing to harness to bring great work to Atlanta through the High Museum of Art,” he said.

A native of Maurice, Iowa, Keough grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. In interviews, he described the impact of watching his father lose everything during the Great Depression and restarting his life at 40.

As a teen, Keough worked in a Sioux City stockyard, followed by service in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946, and marriage in 1949 to the former Marilyn “Mickie” Mulhall, a union that lasted until his death.

Keough began his career in broadcasting, hosting a short-lived Omaha, Neb., TV talk show that aired before another program headlined by a young newcomer, Johnny Carson.

Keough went on to work at Butter-Nut Coffee, a sponsor of his TV show, that would eventually be folded into Coke.

At Coke, Keough became the company’s gregarious ambassador to the bottling world, artfully corralling executives and building lucrative relationships that bolstered the beverage giant overseas. He became a remarkable public speaker, something at which he had to work.

Behind the glad-handing and affability was a bruising and sometimes intimidating corporate leader.

‘Two versions of Keough’

“There’s sort of two versions of Keough,” Keough told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter in 2004. “One is affable. … One is tough as nails.”

A behind-the-scenes kingmaker at Coke for years, Keough never won the company’s top seat. But when passed over for it, he rebounded to become part of the remarkably successful team with Goizueta.

As president and COO, Keough was on the bridge of Battleship Coke during the “cola wars” in the mid-80s when the company replaced its 99-year-old formula with a new version. It became marketing legend, both for how badly it bombed and how artfully the company reacted.

Coca-Cola had tested New Coke, as it came to be called, with more than 190,000 people before launching the new flavor in 1985. Company switchboards lit up with calls from irate consumers. Others hoarded cases of the original formula or boycotted Coca-Cola.

Keough and his team won praise when they re-launched the historic recipe 10 weeks later as “Classic” Coke. The company’s flagship brand held on to the name “Coca-Cola Classic” until dropping the last word in 2009.

He later joked that a version of his quote — “he’s not that dumb, and he’s not that smart” — might be etched on his tombstone.

Known for the long hours he put in at Coke, he was eventually forced out of the company in 1993 at age 67, two years beyond the company’s mandatory retirement age at the time.

He remained an advisor to Goizueta. But he also became non-executive chairman of Allen & Co., a family-owned boutique investment bank in New York whose president, Herbert Allen, has been a long-time Coke director.

Keough was “highly valued” at Allen & Co., Fortune said in an article a decade ago, “for his contacts, business sense, and gregarious Irish charm.” The firm likely put Keough’s charms to use at its annual conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, a week-long extravaganza that has drawn moguls such as Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Disney’s Michael Eisner and News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch.

Keough rejoined Coke’s board in 2004 (after an age limit was reworked partly on his behalf). He quickly led efforts to find a new chief executive for a company that had been adrift (and that some blamed him for).

Buffett, then a Coke board member, said of Keough: “He knows and loves Coca-Cola like nobody in the world today.”

Business commandments

In 2008, an 81-year-old Keough penned “The Ten Commandments for Business Failure.” Among the book’s commandments: “Assume Infallibility” and “Lose Your Passion for Work — for Life.”

When Keough retired from the board in 2013, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent said, “Many of our current Coca-Cola leaders learned this business under Don, and I have personally benefited from his guidance, mentorship and friendship for more than 30 years.”

Over the years Keough was on numerous boards, including McDonald’s, Home Depot, The Washington Post and H.J. Heinz. A major donor and long-time trustee at the University of Notre Dame, Keough revelled in his Irish roots, founding an Irish studies institute at the university.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said one of Keough’s greatest gifts was his ability to make other people feel important.

“When you were with Mr. Keough, you felt his laser focus on you and what you were saying,” Sicher said.

James “Jimmy” Williams, former CEO of Atlanta-based SunTrust and Keough’s longtime friend, said Keough had a presence and an enthusiasm that set him apart.

“Wherever Don Keough was, good things happened,” Williams said.

Andy McKenna, chairman of fast-food giant McDonald’s, said Keough helped guide the company as it entered China in the 1990s, a role that was greatly helped by Keough’s experience working with the Chinese at Coke.

“He was a remarkable man,” McKenna said. “He was a great leader and will be missed.”

Staff writer Russell Grantham contributed to this report.

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