Berkshire and Coca-Cola: Deja Vu All Over Again by Lawrence Cunningham, Concurring Opinions

Lawrence A. Cunningham, author of the best-seller, The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, and an upcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values

In response to the business media frenzy over what challenges at the Coca-Cola Company mean for Berkshire Hathaway, which owns a large stake in the company acquired in 1988, herewith an excerpt for perspective from Berkshire Beyond Buffett, my book released yesterday.  The book focuses on Berkshire’s 50 main wholly owned businesses, but also has brief passages on some of the companies in which Berkshire owns a minority position.  The following is the passage on The Coca-Cola Company, pages 181-182.  You might call it: Berkshire and Coca-Cola: We Have Been Here Before. 

Before presenting the passage, a related note: when activist Coke shareholders (like David Winters) agitating for change complain about their futile efforts to lure Buffett into their fight, remember that Buffett works for Berkshire and its shareholders, not for Coke or its shareholders. While activism might boost Coke’s shareholders today, Berkshire’s patient quiet approach has boosted Berkshire’s shareholders year in and year out.  For example, the model of quiet patience is precisely why Berkshire was able to reap such enormous gains from its investments during the 2008 financial crisis.

Berkshire Hathaway And Coca-Cola: Deja Vu All Over Again

With sales in 2013 reaching $50 billion, The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE:KO) is about as powerful a brand and company as can be, at home in Atlanta and around the world. Its success is due ultimately to a single product, originally a mixture created in 1886 by pharmacist John Styth Pemberton of sugar, water, caffeine, and cocaine (extracts of the coca leaf and the kola nut). In 1891, fellow pharmacist Asa G. Candler gained control of the product and initiated steps to launch the business. Among early moves was the first bottling franchise in 1899, an investment in local partnerships that became the scaffolding to build the brand: the company makes concentrate for sale to bottlers that mix it into liquid form and package it for sale to retailers. Other early milestones include the 1905 removal of cocaine from the mix and the 1916 creation of the unique contour-shaped bottles.

In 1919, Candler sold the company to Ernest Woodruff and an investor group which promptly took it public. In 1923, Ernest’s son, Robert Winship Woodruff, became president, a position he held through 1954, followed by serving as a director through the 1980s. Coke went global in the 1940s, establishing bottling plants near the fronts in World War II. With the stewardship of CEO William Robinson, in 1960, Coke acquired Minute Maid Corporation and in 1961, launched Sprite, the first of many brand expansions it would continue as it developed its product line of five hundred different drinks.

Under Paul Austin during the 1970s, despite reasonable sales, the company stumbled from one problem to another. Bottlers felt misunderstood, migrant workers in the Minute Maid groves were mistreated, environmentalists complained about its containers, and federal authorities challenged the legality of its franchise bottling system. Although Austin launched Coca-Cola into China and was responsible for other international achievements, critics say he neglected the flagship brand by diversifying into water, wine, and shrimp. With investors punishing the stock, the board finally ousted Austin in 1980, replacing him with Roberto C. Goizueta, The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE:KO)’s most famous CEO, serving from 1981 through 1997.

A legendary businessman and Wall Street darling, Goizueta returned to basics, focusing on the Coke brand and rejuvenating Coca-Cola’s traditional corporate culture of product leadership and cost management. During his tenure, Goizueta led the company to widen profit margins from 14 to 20 percent, boosted sales from $6 billion to $18 billion, drove profits from less than $1 billion to nearly $4 billion, and pushed returns on equity from 20 to 30 percent.  These measures were propelled by expanding Coke’s global network and the successful 1982 launch of Diet Coke.

There were, of course, a few errors along the way. One, the lamentable 1985 birth and death of New Coke after it flopped with consumers, simply revealed the power of the core brand. Another was Coca-Cola’s 1982 acquisition and 1987 divestiture of Columbia Pictures after it had become disillusioned with the inscrutable ways of Hollywood. But this diversion simply proved the durability of Coke’s corporate culture—and was also lucrative, as the company paid $750 million for Columbia and sold it for $3.4 billion.

In 1988 and 1989, Buffett heralded Goizueta’s achievements when Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) bought the large block of The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE:KO) shares it still owns today and Buffett joined the board (on which he served until 2006). After Goizueta’s sixteen years, however, the company’s CEOs came and went more like temps, four in thirteen years. But despite mistakes, none could fail so spectacularly as to ruin the Coke brand or Coca-Cola’s corporate culture. Douglas Ivester (1997–2000) swapped the contour-shaped Coke bottle for a larger unfamiliar variant, compromising a valued trademark. Douglas N. Daft (2000–2004) fired large numbers of people, a slap in the face to the employee-centric culture that prided itself on lifetime employment.

Yet changing strong corporate cultures is not easy, and at Coca-Cola, successors quickly reversed course. E. Neville Isdell, who returned from retirement to right the ship, and Muhtar A. Kent, who took over in 2009, revived a decentralized structure and the professional style that Goizueta favored. They also understood the importance of international markets, especially in southeast Asia, where growth prospects remain strong. Kent celebrates Coca-Cola’s greatest tradition, epitomized by its history of using hundreds of bottling partners: being simultaneously global and local.

The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE:KO) has been a profitable investment for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B)—worth today twelve times what Berkshire paid for it. And Buffett’s son Howard has been on its board since 2010. The company appears to be prospering, and the Buffetts are bullish on it. Buffett and Munger continue to give the brand free advertising by sipping it on the podium at Berkshire’s annual meetings. But skeptics wonder about the durability of its economic characteristics in a health-conscious world turning away from carbonated beverages.

Berkshire's All Stars: The Enduring Value of Values

Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values by Lawrence Cunningham

Lawrence A. Cunningham, Henry St. George Tucker III Research Professor

George Washington University

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