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'The World Belongs to the Discontented’: Coca-Cola Forefather Robert Woodruff's Enduring Legacy

By:  Ted Ryan Apr 28, 2014
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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.

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.