Coca-Cola exec Brian Kelley leaving to head Green Mountain Coffee

A top Coca-Cola executive who was expected take over the Atlanta-based company’s new North America operations is instead leaving to head Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a much smaller company specializing in single-serve gourmet coffee and brewing equpiment.

Brian Kelley, who in September was named to become president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Refreshments, will become president and chief executive officer of Waterbury, Vt.-based Green Mountain, starting in December.

Kelley, 51, had been expected to take over Coca-Cola Refreshments, which has 68,000 employees, in January. A Coca-Cola spokesman would not comment on whether Kelley’s sudden departure came as a surprise or whether Coca-Cola tried to keep him.

Steve Cahillane, Coca-Cola Refreshments’ current president and CEO, announced Kelley’s departure Monday in a memo to staffers. Cahillane, who soon will lead Coca-Cola Americas, said he had “mixed emotions” about Kelley’s departure and said his contributions were “important to improving our operating effectiveness and efficiencies.”

Beverage Digest editor John Sicher said Kelley’s departure probably did catch the beverage company by surprise. He would have been in charge of Coca-Cola’s foodservice, regional sales, product supply, customer care, customer retail and commercial operations in the U.S., with the company’s Canadian operations also reporting to him.

“I don’t think they expected him to leave,” Sicher told The Atlanta Journal-Constitutition on Tuesday, but he added Coca-Cola has “a deep bench, fortunately.”

“For the last four or five years under [Chairman and CEO Muhtar] Kent, Coke has had a very focused management development program,” Sicher told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “They have been proactively developing management at different tiers of the company, and part of the reason for doing that is that when you are a high-profile company like Coke and you have talented executives, you are going to lose a few occasionally. And Coke needed to be prepared, and it is prepared. Coke will not miss a beat with this change.”

Coca-Cola said Glen Walter will become president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Refreshments, reporting to Cahillane. Walter is currently responsible for region sales, overseeing the execution of national, regional and local food service and retail customer plans across U.S. regions. Rick Frazier was named chief product supply and service officer at the unit, an appointment that was previously announced.

Green Mountain, which has about 5,800 employees, sells about 200 varieties of coffee, cocoa, teas and other beverages but is mainly known for its Keurig single-cup coffee makers. Small, individual cups of gourmet coffee are popped into the machine, a handle is pressed down on it and a brewing button is pushed for single servings.

The company, however, has struggled as patents on technology for its K-Cups expired and competitors released their own single-serve coffee makers — including coffee chain giant Starbucks Corp., according to an Associated Press report. Green Mountain Coffee expected its sales to moderate.

Most of Green Mountain’s products are sold in North America at supermarkets, in warehouse clubs and at convenience stores. They are also sold in restaurants and hospitality locations, through office coffee distributors and directly to consumers through its website.

In a statement, Kelley said Green Mountain’s single-serve brewing technology is “changing consumer behavior by changing the way we brew and enjoy coffee. I am honored and excited by the opportunity to lead this organization whose products have sparked unparalleled growth in specialty coffee.”

Kelley joined Coca-Cola in 2007 as president and general manager of its Still Beverages and Supply Chain North America unit after heading what was formerly North American Van Lines, the moving company. As head of Still Beverages, Kelley oversaw juices, waters, teas, sports drinks, enhanced waters and energy drinks, including brands such as Vitaminwater, Smartwater, Simply, Minute Maid, Odwalla, Fuze, Nestea, Dasani, Powerade and Gold Peak.

He had been chief product supply officer for Coca-Cola Refreshments since October 2010. Kelley is former president of North America business integration for Coca-Cola and oversaw the integration of Coca-Cola North America and Coca-Cola Enterprises’ North American operations into what is now Coca-Cola Refreshments.

Kelley, who is also a former Ford Motor Co. and General Electric executive, will become a member of Green Mountain’s board of directors.