Ninety-one years ago today—on April 28, 1923—in a rare
Saturday meeting of the board of directors, Robert W. Woodruff was elected president
of The Coca-Cola Company at the age of 33. The vote kicked off Woodruff’s 60-plus
years of Coca-Cola leadership.
Robert was the son of Ernest and Emily Woodruff. He was born
on Dec. 6, 1889, making him only three years younger than the company he would
lead. Ernest Woodruff was an Atlanta businessman and President of Trust Company
of Georgia, the predecessor to SunTrust Bank.
Woodruff showed an early passion for business and an early
disinterest in schoolwork. After
graduating from the Military Institute of Georgia, Woodruff attended Emory
College for a short period before entering the business world. After a few
years at Atlantic Coal and Ice, Woodruff was wooed by Walter White to join the Cleveland-based
White Motor Company. Woodruff’s sales
records and his leadership ability were soon evident, and he was elected vice president
and offered a position on the board of directors by 1921.
Robert W. Woodruff with White Motor Company, c. 1921.
Robert W. Woodruff, c. 1945.
Board of Directors portrait by Fred Mizen, Robert Woodruff bottom left, c.1931.
Robert W. Woodruff, c. 1945.
In 1919, Ernest Woodruff led a group to purchase The
Coca-Cola Company from Asa Candler for $25 million. The three years following
that purchase were tumultuous for the company, which was locked into high sugar
prices because of advance purchases made following WWI and stung by
long-running lawsuits over trademark protection and bottling agreements. Coke’s
stock price had fallen dramatically from its $40 per-share IPO price in 1919.
Ernest Woodruff and W. C. Bradley convinced Robert Woodruff to take a $50,000 annual
pay cut to come back to Atlanta and lead The Coca-Cola Company. That fateful
Saturday in 1923 changed the future of The Coca-Cola Company forever.
Woodruff was a brilliant businessman who changed the way the
company operated. He was devoted to
quality and worked to ensure that the drink was consistently excellent. He advocated to keep Coca-Cola within an “arms
reach of desire.” To do so, Coca-Cola introduced a standard six-pack to make it
easier to take bottles home. He also
established a technical department with worked to standardize and improve Coke’s
fountain and vending equipment.
Woodruff believed Coca-Cola could become an international
drink, too. When he became president in 1923, Coca-Cola was only bottled in
five countries outside the United States. By 1930, that number had climbed to
almost 30. The advertising for the company also changed as Woodruff and Archie
Lee, creative director on the Coca-Cola account with D’Arcy Advertising,
crafted the brand image that is still recognized today and began the long
association with the Olympic Games in 1928. These are but a few of the ways
that Robert W. Woodruff changed the face of The Coca-Cola Company.