Frank Harrison III, chairman and CEO of Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Consolidated, knows it’s unusual for the leader of a publicly owned company to talk so much about faith.
But it’s his faith, Harrison said, that helped guide him through the tough business stretch in 2008 through 2009, as rivals bit into Coke’s growth.
And it’s faith that steered him to push the company into more charity work and service, Harrison said, making for a better company and healthier employees. About a dozen years ago, he began providing chaplains throughout the company.
“When you’re tight with the King, when you have that piece solid, you can lead,” said Harrison, speaking on leadership Thursday night at Wake Forest University’s uptown Charlotte Center.
“We want to grow, we want to make more money for a lot of reasons. But one of the key reasons is so that we can give more.”
Harrison’s talk was presented by Wake Forest Family Business Center and School of Business. His great-grandfather opened a Coke bottling plant in 1902. Harrison, at age 37, became CEO in 1996.
Coke Consolidated has about 6,500 employees, including about 5,000 full-time workers. The company is headquartered in SouthPark and has operations in 11 states, primarily in the Southeast. Total earnings for the Coke bottler were $27.2 million in 2012.
Harrison said there were key turning points in his career that led him to question what his, and his company’s, legacies would be.
One of those moments came when his 27-year-old son, James, died suddenly in Africa in 2010. James had spent several years working in Sudan with a ministry he and his father founded, called With Open Eyes. Harrison showed the audience a video of James’ work in Africa.
“James left a legacy,” Harrison said, adding that if he had died at age 27, there would have been “no legacy.”
Harrison said it took two days for him to reach Africa after James died. A member of the ministry stayed with the young man’s body the whole time. That showed the elder Harrison a lot about service.
Today, employees of the bottler are involved in projects with the homeless and other service efforts, Harrison said. It’s work that helps the company leave a legacy, too.
“Why is Coke Consolidated here? ... I do believe we have a God-given purpose,” Harrison said.
Harrison said competitive times in the beverage business meant he sometimes moved in a different direction from Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., which provides bottlers with the concentrate used to flavor soda. Harrison said his plants embraced sports drinks and bottled the products years before the parent company did.
Harrison said he didn’t know what to expect when then-Coke CEO Donald Keough called him to Atlanta to talk about the different direction he had taken. Instead, Keough credited him with moving the company in the right direction, Harrison said.
Harrison’s talk included several light moments when he spoke of Steve Reinemund, dean of the Schools of Business at Wake Forest University. Reinemund was chairman and CEO of PepsiCo between 2001 and 2006.
Harrison said Reinemund’s leadership at Pepsi gave Coke a run for business: “We’re so glad he’s gone.”
Smith: 704-358-5087, on Twitter @celestesmithobs
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