We remain constantly discontent

I had the privilege last Friday of listening to Coke CEO Dr. Muhtar Kent speak at the World Affairs Council. Dr. Kent’s bio was on the table for all to see and read. My eye was drawn to the prominent mention of the name of a small university in Atlanta where Dr. Kent was awarded the honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2010. That would be Oglethorpe University. It’s been an honor to come to know Muhtar over the past few years, connected by a dear friend of both of ours, Cemal Ozgorkey (an OU graduate and trustee). I always learn something listening to Muhtar. Two small tidbits from Friday. Coke’s most dramatic international expansion happened during WWII when General Eisenhower requested that the company provide the soft drink to all the GI’s. Over five billion bottles were enjoyed at a nickel a piece. Do the math. And 64 bottling plants were opened up in Europe to supply all that fizz. The second tidbit? In 2010, Coke expanded its Auburndale, Florida citrus plant to the tune of $115 million dollars. One-third of the entire Florida orange juice crop is now processed at this plant and, get this, 80% of the pulp produced there is exported to China. I never would have imagined that.

The substance of the speech, of course, went beyond these facts. CEO Kent had recently returned from the 2011 G8 conference in France. He talked about four consistent and inter-connected themes that were woven throughout the conversation there: confidence, governance, social harmony and sustainable growth. Confidence of the people in our institutions (government, business, religious and educational) are at all all-time low. Collectively, that confidence must be restored. That will require repairing our governance models all across the world. Not just in Egypt and Greece, but also here at home. The unrest we are seeing across the globe has grown out of a breakdown in the social order. When people feel their social mobility has been impaired, the cracks in the mosaic of social harmony appear. Economic growth and opportunity must be expanded and expanded in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

I don’t see much here one could disagree with, although I know that people will have different takes on just how all these things can be accomplished. Some focus on one piece of this four way test more than another. The Occupy Wall Streeters are trying to increase attention to the breakdown in social order that arises from the growing inequality of wealth. The Tea Party, one might suggest, is trying to restore confidence in government by limiting the role of government. Certainly some business leaders, Dr. Kent among them, are focused on helping to spur economic growth through a more rationale tax system. I’m not here to pick sides, at least in this blog, but I do think that any successful approach to moving our country forward has to take into account all of these themes. I’ll provide just one example, much of which I have addressed in former blog posts. From the 70’s up until about 2008, our economy was expanding quite nicely. Not in a straight line, but certainly in a strong direction. Yet at the same time, social mobility in American was decreasing. The gap between the rich and the poor increased significantly. Inflation-adjusted income of the lower and middle class hardly grew at all. Social harmony, to use CEO Kent’s phrase, was put at risk and, with the collapse of 2008, the risk was revealed as real.

When I think about the super-committee trying to do its work right now, I sure hope the conversation in their secret room includes consideration of all the issues Muhtar raised this week. Hope. Hope. Finally, let me explain my title to this post. Someone asked Muhtar if there was a single phrase he used to describe his managerial style (as in Good to Great or Management by Walking Around, etc.). He first mentioned an idea that he learned from his father of carrying one’s own bags. He does, he told us, actually carry his own bags. I was delighted to learn that we have something in common. I have been looking for someone to carry my bags for decades, but no luck yet. But then he went on to talk about the culture at the Coca Cola Company and what he believes has made it so successful: We remain constantly discontent. I like that idea. Maybe I found one other thing we share.

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