I think it’s a safe bet that E. Neville Isdell of The Coca-Cola Co. is the only chief executive officer of a FORTUNE 500 company who is a vegan. It’s also likely that he is also the only FORTUNE 500 CEO who grew up in Africa. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) He is certainly one of the most interesting CEOs I’ve met, which is why I went last week to a ceremony during which the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recognized Coca-Cola with its 2007 Alliance of the Year award. The event was dull, as expected, but Isdell did not disappoint.
Together, USAID and Coca-Cola have spent about $14 million in 17 countries as part of an ambitious partnership to deliver clean water and improved sanitation to about 250,000 people — not a trivial number. Isdell was careful to say that the award was not personal– “water is at the core of what we do,” he noted — but he took the occasion to reminisce about his arrival in Africa as a child, when he took a three-day, 2000-mile train ride from Cape Town to his new home in Zambia. His father had moved their family from Ireland, where he’d been a forensics expert; his father became a police executive in Zambia, which was then white-dominated Northern Rhodesia.
Tall, bald and 63 years old, Isdell had told me about his train ride through Africa when we met a few weeks ago:
I had this fabulous experience as a 10-year-old, seeing Africa for the first time. The old coaches had that open area where you could stand in the open air. I would stand out there for hours and hours and just watch Africa.
He talked as well about the importance of water in Africa:
One of the most magical things is the arrival of the rain at the end of the dry season. You have to live there to feel it. This is Zambia. It stops raining by the end of April. It’s dry all the way through to somewhere around the first week of November. You get this buildup in temperature. The clouds build up. The humidity’s high but still it doesn’t rain. The earth is barren. It’s parched. And all of the sudden the first rain falls. And there is the most unbelievable aroma, a raw aroma that’s released when the rain hits the hot soil. Actually, it’s baked earth. You understand that cycle. You understand when that cycle is broken, how dangerous it is. Those are the little triggers, I think, that put you on a certain path.
As social work student at the University of Cape Town, Isdell became an anti-apartheid activist. “I had my house raided by the security police,” he said. “It wasn’t easy and pleasant.” The only photograph in his office in Atlanta is one of Nelson Mandela, who he came know later as a Coca-Cola executive in Africa. He has lived in one African country or another for 26 years.
At the US AID event, he said:
To some degree, I became an African. I felt connected to the soil. To the warmth of the people. And also to the tragedies.
Earlier, he had told me:
Africa’ss had a major imprint on me. You actually learn cultural sensitivity, and I think that has stood me in very good stead. Most of western society has very poor cultural antenna. You live in Africa, you live with a whole lot of different cultures. You live with people at different levels of economic development.
Isdell and his wife Pamela, who also grew up in Zambia, spent their honeymoon at what is now Lake Malawi. They return to Africa nearly every year, in part so that he can pursue his passion for wildlife photography. “I’m an early convert to the environmental movement because of my spending time out in the wild in Africa, and my wife’s exactly the same,” he told me.
Isdell’s most recent trip to Africa was mostly business.. He went to Mali in January, the first time he’d been there. Country No. 154, he told me. Isdell went to see the Coke-USAID partnership at work and to dedicate a new waste water treatment facility built by the local independently-owned bottler, at the strong urging of the home office in Atlanta. The home office also provided financial help, though the company won’t say how much. Coca-Cola has said it wants to become “water neutral”–meaning that it will restore as much water to the earth as it takes away to make its drinks. You can download a study of Coke’s water program by Business for Social Responsibility from the BSR website.
It would be simplistic to say that Coke’s endeavors reflect Isdell’s personal history. There are solid business reasons why Coke is investing in the world’s water supply, with USAID and through an even more ambitious partnership with the World Wildlife Federation. You may recall, for example, that the company came under fierce and sustained attack when wells ran dry near one of its bottling plants in India and the bottler was blamed. You know about the controversy surrounding bottled water. (Coke’s brand is Dasani.) Without an ample supply of clean, fresh water, Coke has no business. But–it would be equally simplistic to think that the personal history and character of a CEO don’t have an impact as well.
As for Isdell’s vegan diet, I wondered whether it had anything to do with the environment. (The single easiest thing that anyone can do to help stop global warming is to eat less meat.) Apparently not. As Isdell tells it, he was playing golf with the former pro Gary Player in Barbados, where Isdell lived when he briefly retired from Coca-Cola. Player suggested that he read a vegan diet book called The China Study. Isdell did so, after which he read another book about vegan diets called The Okinawa Program. He now eats “nothing that comes from anything with eyes” although he cheats every now and then to enjoy a piece of fish. He swears by the diet, saying:
I was getting a bit of arthritis. It’s gone away. I was 20 pounds overweight and I thought it might help that as well, and it did. The net result is that I feel an awful lot better. I never touch beef.
Of course, his diet is in one respect entirely conventional. He drinks lots of Coca-Cola products. Coke Zero, last time I looked.