Sam Nunn

Sam Nunn has had a remarkable career in both public and private life, from 24 years as a U.S. Senator from Georgia to his landmark work with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He is renowned for his bipartisanship and has worked with people across both major political parties for decades.

As a native Georgian, Nunn also has deep ties to The Coca-Cola Company.

Nunn, who turned 80 this year, will retire as a member of the company’s board in 2019. He has been on the board since 1997. We talked to him about his Coke connections and his observations on the political climate today.    

Q: You grew up in Perry, Ga., and you started college at Georgia Tech, across the street from Coca-Cola headquarters. What are your first memories of Coke?

A: The first Coca-Colas I remember were in a drug store – fountain Coca-Colas. As kids, when we had any money, we would get Coca-Colas from the drug store. And if you really were going to put on a banquet, you’d have it in a float with ice cream. A little bit later, I remember putting peanuts in Coca-Cola.

Q: The peanut thing is uniquely southern, I think.

A: Well, we were in peanut country.

Q: What were your first experiences with Coca-Cola as a company?

A: I had known of the company from the time I was able to read the newspapers. Everybody knew Coca-Cola in Georgia, like all the things that the company did for people in the military during World War II. That always created a tremendously good image for me. Then, when I was in the state legislature, I always was close to Earl Leonard [the company’s former senior vice president for corporate affairs] and Ovid Davis before him and later Connell Stafford. [Before being elected, Nunn worked with Leonard on separate political staffs in Washington, D.C., while Stafford was part of Nunn’s staff before leaving for a job at the company].

Q: Did the company support you when you ran for U.S. Senate in ’72?

A: I think a few people in the company did. But Coca-Cola itself? Probably not. In ’72, David Gambrell was the incumbent, and I was a challenger in the primary.

Q: When did you start meeting people with the company?

A: Earl or Ovid took me in to see Mr. Woodruff [Robert Woodruff was the longtime chairman of the company] after I won the primary in ‘72. It was the only time I ever met him. And I remember he was sitting in a dark room behind a rather intimidating desk. But we had a nice conversation. And then later I got to know Roberto Goizueta [the company’s chairman from 1980-1997]. While I was in the senate, he came to see me frequently. I worked with him directly on a number of things.

Q: Talk about representing Coke’s home state and what that meant in discussions like opening China for American investment in the 1970s.

A: I had a staff member, Arnold Punaro, who was a former Marine. He is from Macon, Ga., and he was a big Coke proponent. He knew how important Coke was to the state of Georgia and to the country. Arnold was usually with me on international trips, and he would always take pictures if he saw a Coca-Cola sign. Also, everywhere we went, Arnold would always bring a Coke and put it at my table. So when I met with Deng Xiaoping in China, before Coke was in China, we got pictures with Coca-Cola products that Arnold had brought with him.

Q: You joined the company’s board in ’97. How did that come about?

A: Roberto came to my office after I announced in 1995 that I was going to retire from the Senate. He mentioned that he would like very much for me to join the board when it was appropriate to talk about it, after I finished my Senate career. He knew I had a lot of board offers, and so he was very keen on Coca-Cola being the first. Somehow, he and Jack Welch of General Electric had talked, because Welch had told him he was going to see if I would go on the GE board. Roberto told me he wanted to make sure he made the Coca-Cola announcement first.

Q: How is the Coke board different from other corporate boards you’ve served on?

A: This one is different in the sense that this is my home state. Coca-Cola is a product I’ve grown up with all my life. I have known Coca-Cola people, and I’ve known how much good the company has done in terms of community leadership and in terms of helping both Atlanta and the state of Georgia. I’ve also been extremely grateful to the company’s leadership in difficult times on racial matters and their stance for equal treatment and respect for everyone. They’ve always done this during periods in which it was not easy to do it. I’ve enjoyed all of my boards, but Coca-Cola has been special.

Q: How has it changed over the years?

A: Muhtar Kent has greatly stepped up the pace of the restructuring and the tremendous increase in products. For example, when I first came on the Coke board, we had no water products. And now Coke Zero Sugar is my favorite.

Q: What are some of the best memories of being on the board and what were some of the most challenging times?

A: We went through a tough, tough period with the allegations of racial discrimination in the late 1990s. I thought the company faced up to the problem, which they were largely unaware of, and there became a whole lot more awareness about equal treatment and not only respect from the top but respect all the way down. Also, out of that I think came the company’s awareness of the importance of continuous feedback to its employees. I’ve also seen a change in the company  from the management level. I think that the process of succession and management development has been greatly strengthened in the last 12 years. The board has had a whole lot more interaction with top management people from all over the world. Something we’ve done in the last five years, while I’ve been the lead independent director, is encourage directors, wherever they go in the world, to take a day or at least several hours to visit with leaders and the top folks and their staffs. It’s been very good for the board in terms of information flow about what’s really happening in the field and seeing how leaders act with their own team.

Q: Do you recall the first time you met current CEO James Quincey and your thoughts about him?

A: I was always impressed with James. He was very high on the list of people who were certainly going to be considered for the top job. And I give tremendous credit to Muhtar for both his role in making sure the board knew James and for making us aware of the other people who were also considered. The selection and the transition process with James has been one of the real signs of an active, involved and I think effective board.

Q: You’ve seen a lot of changes in Georgia in the growth of the business community over several decades. What do you think has made Georgia successful at getting businesses to locate here and to expand?

A: We’ve had good governors, and I think we’ve had very active chambers of commerce. The leadership of the business community started with The Coca-Cola Company, but also included a lot of other companies. Some communities, you don’t have that. It has been pro-business in the best sense of the word, under both Democratic leadership and Republican leadership. I think Governor Perdue, Governor Deal and Governor Barnes did a good job, and also their predecessors made businesses feel welcome in Georgia. Tom Murphy, who was speaker of the house for many, many years, was instrumental. So, it’s been consistent encouragement of business development in Georgia on a totally non-partisan basis. And still is, I think.

Q: Our national politics are quite partisan right now. Is it as divisive as people think, viewed from a long-term perspective?

A: Individually, there are a number of senators and representatives in both parties who really want to work together. The atmosphere of the country is very divided now. Fundraising intensifies efforts to publicize all differences. It’s gotten worse and worse and worse. The system has not responded well to what was inevitably more and more splits in the country based on demographics, based on economics, based on rural/urban, based on race. Also, I don’t give great marks to legislative leadership in the last 20 years. In the past, leaders from different parties got along very well. That didn’t mean they agreed on things. They’d fight like mad on the floor, but they knew they had to make the institution work. Now, there are too many leaders who put party before the institutions. I think there are just far too many people in leadership and too many in the House and Senate who don’t fully appreciate the importance of the institution itself. In our constitutional system of government, the Congress is a very important check and balance on the executive. That’s the way the founding fathers intended it, and we still need that.

Q: Are you optimistic?

A: I am optimistic. America somehow, miraculously, doesn’t let the pendulum keep swinging in the same direction too long. The question is whether we can stop it in the middle.