Born: November 18, 1931
Havana, Cuba Died: October 18, 1997
Former CEO, Coca-Cola Company
Roberto Goizueta was indeed part of the Coca-Cola culture, spending sixteen years as chief executive officer (CEO) of the soft drink giant. Born in Cuba and raised in the United States, Goizueta saw himself as Coca-Cola's ambassador to the world, always more willing to talk about the company rather than himself. He presided over one the company's biggest growth periods and its biggest disaster: the introduction of New Coke in 1985. But he bounced back, introducing the world to better-received products, such as Diet Coke, Caffeine-free Coke, and Cherry Coke. Credited with transforming the global soft drink manufacturer into one of America's most admired companies, Goizueta became a legend of business management and a very wealthy man. Shortly before his death, his personal fortune was estimated at $1.3 billion.
"I have always believed in being in the big pond. This is very non-Latin. I am not of the Cuban culture. I am not of the American culture. I suppose I am of the Coca-Cola culture."
Roberto C. Goizueta was born on November 18, 1931, in Havana, Cuba, to Crispulo Goizueta and Aida Cantera. His father owned a sugar plantation and was wealthy enough to send him to a small preparatory school in New Hampshire. There young Goizueta learned to speak English partly by watching movies. After he graduated as class valedictorian, he attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to study chemical engineering. He received his bachelor's of science degree in 1953, shortly before marrying Olga Casteleiro. The couple eventually had three children. Goizueta returned to Cuba in 1954, but instead of working on his family's sugar plantation, he became the technical director of the Coca-Cola plant in Havana.
The Goizueta family's circumstances were soon changed by a social revolution that swept across Cuba. At the time, the country was controlled by Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973), considered by many to be a brutal dictator. A rebel force led by Fidel Castro (1927-) and Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) tried to overthrow Batista. After a few years, the guerrilla warfare of the rebels—consisting of quick attacks and ambushes—proved successful, and Castro and his comrades took over the government in 1959. They immediately put banks and other businesses under the control of the government. They also seized the property of wealthy landowners, and Goizueta's family lost all of its money. In 1960, Goizueta fled to Miami, Florida.
For a time, Goizueta and his family lived in a Miami motel room, but his job with Coca-Cola remained secure, and he continued his work as an engineer for Coke's Latin American operations. Goizueta was promoted to the Atlanta world headquarters in 1964, where he became well known among management ranks for having a tidy desk at the end of every business day and wearing well-tailored suits. In 1979, he was promoted to vice president, and became responsible for several different areas of the company, including its laboratories and legal department. Over the next fifteen years, Goizueta steadily climbed the corporate ladder. By 1980, he had become Coca-Cola's president and chief operating officer (COO).
Goizueta became chief executive officer (CEO) in 1981, a move that surprised many in the business world. For one, he was the first head of Coca-Cola not to come from Georgia. In addition, corporate analysts questioned the move since much of the leadership duties would involve marketing, an area in which Goizueta had virtually no experience. Yet because of time spent heading the Coca-Cola labs, Goizueta did possess one advantage over his fellow contenders: he was familiar with what was called "the knowledge" in company lore—Coca-Cola's highly secretive formula. Reportedly he was one of only two people in the company who knew it.
In the end, Goizueta did prove to be a savvy marketing executive. When he took the reins, Coca-Cola was losing market share to its major competitor, Pepsi, and its stock was not performing well. Although it was a strong international presence, Coke's brand image was perceived as old-fashioned and conservative. Goizueta reversed all of these problems. One of his first decisions was to allow a new diet drink to trade on the success of the Coke name, and so Diet Coke was introduced in 1982. Goizueta also launched such aggressive marketing campaigns that Pepsi's gains in market share were reversed and Coke sales tripled. Finally, he focused on stock performance and succeeded in keeping Coca-Cola shareholders happy with a healthy annual return on their investment. From 1981 to 1997 the company's stock value increased over 7,000 percent.
Goizueta used some of his wealth to establish the Goizueta Foundation, which donated money to various social and educational causes. He also sat on the boards of several major companies, including Suntrust Banks, the Ford Motor Company, Sonat, and Eastman Kodak Company (see entries). In 1994, Atlanta's Emory University, whose endowments have been enriched by Coca-Cola stock, named its business school in his honor. In the summer of 1997, Goizueta, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died that Fall, on October 18, 1997, at the age of sixty-five.