“After National Distribution—What?” pondered legendary Coca-Cola CEO Robert Woodruff. The year was 1929, and by then the soft drink was already a nationally-known brand. Some believed that the market for Coca-Cola was saturated. In fact, Coca-Cola was only in its infancy. A $1000 investment made during that year would be worth close to $10 million today (with dividends reinvested).
In the most exhaustive and authoritative work on the company ever produced, Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country, and Coca-Cola chronicles the extensive history of the famed soft drink. The story starts with druggist John Pemberton, who dreamed up Coca-Cola in 1886. Pedergrast then describes the maneuvering and intrigue that surrounded Coke’s wild early days, which finally ended with the victory of entrepreneur Asa Candler. Later a syndicate of businessmen led by Ernest Woodruff bought out Candler and took the company public. After a few years of poor leadership, Woodruff’s young son Robert took control of Coca-Cola. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet, the bottled sugar water’s incredible rise never seemed obvious. When Pemberton first concocted the soft drink, it was just one of an innumerable number of tonics mainly marketed for medicinal purposes. The storied company’s history is as much a parade of folly and failure as a meteoric rise. Herein lies a key insight for investors. As successful as Coca-Cola became, it always seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next. From FDA Commissioner Harvey Wiley’s 1911 lawsuit against the company to the New Coke fiasco of the 1980s, the spectacle never ceased. The company’s ability to weather all of these storms is a testament to the power of branding and a loyal fanbase.
And no matter how many times the growth seemed to taper off, even greater success was just beyond the horizon. Although the drink symbolizes the power of American capitalism, Coca-Cola has always managed to blend in with the local culture wherever it goes. Its ubiquity makes it part of the global zeitgeist, destined to go on forever and reach even greater heights as the world grows wealthier. Coca-Cola proves that investors and managers who can spot a great domestic business with worldwide potential can be richly rewarded, if they are patient and persistent.
At nearly 500 pages, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola feels much longer because every page is just so dense and richly detailed. Pendergrast leaves no stone unturned and masterfully captures the drama and euphoria of Coke’s incredible life. Indeed, the story of Coke is also the story of American capitalism itself. Formerly dominated by small enterprises, the American business landscape is now characterized by large, professionally managed corporations. Coca-Cola’s transition from a family-owned company run by the irascible Candler to a disciplined machine is a fascinating tale that encapsulates monumental change in American society.
Through it all, Pendergrast refuses to bend the knee to the company, sometimes flatly contradicting Coca-Cola’s official version of history. Like many corporate titans, Coca-Cola relishes a creation story that sometimes does not conform to reality. The fact that the drink once contained cocaine (hence the “coca” part of the name) has disappeared down the company’s memory hole, but Pendergrast documents that it did indeed contain the once legal drug. Although Coca-Cola prides itself on a wholesome, positive image, Pendergrast does not shy away from including the criticisms of its loudest detractors. With extensive footnotes, several appendices, and a robust bibliography, the book is more of a scholarly work than a simply business history. As such, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola probably is not great bedtime reading for most people. But it is not boring by any measure. Pendergrast’s writing crackles with a fantastic wit and strong command of language. While many authors of similar works drift into plodding repetition, Pendergrast constantly delights with clever turns of phrase. It is a thoughtful book, even entertaining, and I highly recommend it for those with a serious interest in business.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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