CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. – Former Coca-Cola CEO and current Chairman Muhtar Kent spoke at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia a few days after UVA, founded by Thomas Jefferson, celebrated its bicentennial.

Visiting campus as part of the Darden Leadership Speaker Series, Kent talked about Coca-Cola’s ongoing efforts to build a growth-oriented, consumer-focused total beverage company with an evolving portfolio of brands and packages designed to appeal to shifting consumer tastes.

“Our goal,” he said on Oct. 10, “is to provide delicious, refreshing beverages for every occasion, every lifestyle and every type of person.”

Looking ahead, Kent said, “I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our business. We have a strong and diverse brand portfolio. We’re reshaping our product mix to offer people the kinds of drinks they want. And we lead an aligned franchise bottling system that’s eager to grow.”  

Kent also outlined a set of global macro trends impacting Coca-Cola and the broader consumer goods marketplace, including urbanization, the acceleration of technology and “hyper-connectivity,” and the evolving relationship between people and brands.

Kent shared five of the most important lessons learned over the course of his almost 40-year Coke career:

  1. Know your business from the ground up.
  2. Have passion for what you do.
  3. Take time to build relationships.
  4. Embrace the importance of diversity.
  5. Learn something new every day.

Recalling a memorable visit to nearby Monticello on July 4, 2011, Kent offered comfort to the students and others in the Charlottesville community, which this summer suffered the tragic loss of three lives in a domestic terror attack.

“This has been and remains a compassionate country, a nation filled with neighborly love,” Kent said. “We saw that in Charlottesville’s spirited and united response to that terrible day in August. A moment when Americans of good will from every state, every party, every race and every ethnicity stood united in shock and, even more importantly, resolve. And a belief in each other and our shared journey of liberty, pluralism and love.”

Touching on the historical importance of diversity in America, Kent said, “When we look at the United States, it’s clear that one of this country’s great strengths has long been the robust diversity of our people. Even in its earliest days, America never had a monolithic culture. People from different nations, with different cultures, religions, occupations and schools of thought joined together to create something new ‘in the course of human events,’ to borrow a phrase.”

Kent began his speech by paying tribute to the late John Farrell, a Darden alum who helped launch Diet Coke in 1982 and served as chief strategy officer during the early years of Kent’s tenure as CEO. Farrell passed away in 2013.

Of his colleague and friend, Kent said, “John Farrell embodied the type of people attracted by Darden and improved and polished here. Smart. Insightful. Opinionated but collaborative. A source of knowledge, wit, wisdom and whimsy.”

Following his keynote, Kent took questions from students and summed things up with three imperatives: “Like yourself. Like people. Like what you do.”