Kent to Follow Isdell as Coke’s CEO

NEW YORK It is now up to Muhtar Kent to lead Coca-Cola’s turnaround efforts. Neville Isdell said today that he would resign as the head of Coke as of July 1 after four years. Once he leaves, Kent becomes CEO.

Kent, who is currently president and COO, was not a surprise pick, as he had been labeled Isdell’s heir apparent since rejoining Coke in May 2005.

“It’s a logical and positive move for Coke,” said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest. “No one has more knowledge of the company and system than he does. So Coke won’t miss a beat. The whole thing should be seamless.”

Coke spent nearly $500 million in U.S. measured media alone last year, and more than $320 million through the first nine months of 2007, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Portland, Ore.-based Wieden + Kennedy, an independent, is the lead creative shop.

As an executive, Kent has been characterized as a mover and shaker. He was one of the driving forces behind the company’s pricey acquisition of Glaceau Vitaminwater.

“Muhtar Kent has been a positive change for the company since taking over the COO role in December [2006],” said Citigroup analyst Bonnie Herzog in a report. “We don’t expect major strategic changes as Kent has been a major driver in the notable shift in the company’s strategic direction, which has included the company’s willingness to venture outside of the company’s own strategic brands for growth.”

Isdell will remain chairman of Coke’s board of directors until April 2009. He said in a statement: “We are very certain that Muhtar is prepared for this next transition in management responsibilities and is the absolute right person to take our company to the next level of performance.”

Coke has struggled in its most important market, North America. Kent will look to turn the company around in the U.S. as well as continue to expand its overseas growth. “He as an individual and an executive is a very aggressive person,” said Sicher. “He moves fast and isn’t afraid of taking risks.”

This risk-taking side, however, landed Kent in legal trouble in the 1990s. Kent was investigated for insider trading when he was an executive at Coca-Cola Amatil in Sydney, Australia. He sold short 100,000 shares of his stock hours before the company announced sagging profits. Kent denied the charges and a civil settlement was struck.

Upon Kent’s hiring in 2005, Isdell called the matter “thoroughly investigated and resolved.”

Kent said in a statement today that “the opportunity to lead Coca-Cola is an extraordinary honor, and I am grateful to the board for the confidence it has placed in me. I look forward to building on the strong foundation for sustainable growth that we have set in place for the Coca-Cola system around the world.”