The man who put the fizz back into Coca-Cola

After saving the soft drinks giant, Co Down-born Neville Isdell is turning his sights to Dublin’s CHQ

Neville Isdell: “I had thought about buying something in my homeland, but this wasn’t an emotional decision. Now is the right time to buy in Ireland.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Neville Isdell: “I had thought about buying something in my homeland, but this wasn’t an emotional decision. Now is the right time to buy in Ireland.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Neville Isdell, the former chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola and the owner of the CHQ building in Dublin, leans on his walking stick, looks left and then right. It is mid-morning and the riverside centre is practically deserted.

“Let’s go some place warmer,” says the Downpatrick native, ducking down a side corridor and into a tiny office.

The 70-year old clearly considers the walking stick to be an irritant, a prop to be endured for a few more weeks while he recovers from a knee operation.

A talented rugby player in his day, Isdell stands six foot, five inches tall and still carries an imposing frame. He doesn’t ordinarily need a stick to get around. He looks strong enough to snap it between his fingers if he wanted.

The office, thankfully, is toasty. A half-full bottle of Coke Zero sits on the table and Isdell smiles when asked if the diet brand is his creation. “It is,” he declares, tossing the stick aside and settling into his chair.

Isdell was brought out of retirement almost a decade ago to rescue the world’s most famous company, and succeeded. This time round, he only has to rescue an ailing Dublin shopping centre.

But this is the CHQ, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma spawned by a crazy property bubble. Saving Coke could turn out to be a cinch by comparison.

CHQ, a protected structure, was built as a tobacco warehouse in the 19th century. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) decided to turn it into an upscale shopping centre in the dying days of the boom, and spent €45 million refurbishing it for its 2007 rebirth.

The new CHQ was stillborn. With the exception of the busy Ely restaurant and a handful of shops, CHQ has traded woefully since the day it opened.

Nine of its 22 ground floor units are occupied, although its new owner has a plan to solve that. In July, Isdell, who left Ireland for Zambia when he was aged 10, paid about €10 million for CHQ as a private investment.

He retired from Coca-Cola for good in 2008. He is now a non-executive director of General Motors, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, chairman of the pro-business NGO the Investment Climate Facility for Africa, and vice chairman of DGM, an offshore bank in Barbados.

He is not, he points out, a property man. Nor is his Cork-based stepbrother, Mervyn Greene, who manages CHQ for him.

“My financial adviser wanted to come over and take a look at this whole Irish thing,” he says, referring to the end of the recession.

His accent is a curious mix of middle-class Northern Ireland and white African, with an American twist.

“I had thought about buying something in my homeland, but this wasn’t an emotional decision. Now is the right time to buy in Ireland.” He started looking at Irish property assets for sale towards the end of last year.

“I had never thought of taking on something like this, an operating company. But this is a special building,” he says. CHQ, formerly known as Stack A, is fashioned from wrought iron with a beautiful internal roof structure.

“This is what happens in life – you set out to do one thing and something else happens, and you say: ‘Wow, this is different.’ My wife thinks I have taken leave of my senses.”

Isdell reiterates that he didn’t buy a shopping centre. “I bought a centre with some shops.” The building, he says, is a “matrix – there are different things we can do with the different parts of it”.

Beneath the centre, running its full breadth and length from the Liffey at the front to the IFSC at the back, there is a network of old vaults. Some are bricked up, and Isdell hopes to open them all up. They could work as an events space or as a tourist or cultural exhibit.


Food market
“Something that is live and ongoing. That would help fill the place up during mid morning and mid afternoon.”

In the “conservatory” area overlooking George’s dock, where CHQ does a brisk trade, Isdell plans to establish a restaurant zone with multiple eateries.

“We are definitely set on that. We want to make it a restaurant destination, and we’re talking to some people about coming in.” He is aiming for good quality mid-scale restaurants.

Towards the river end at the front, Isdell wants to establish a food market. “It wouldn’t be a replica of the English Market in Cork, but sort of like that.

“It wouldn’t be top end in pricing, and it wouldn’t be all Irish foods. And we wouldn’t operate it ourselves. We would bring in someone to tie it all together.”

He has spoken with Eataly, the Italian food retailer. “They’re the best in the world. They’re not interested in expanding right now, but we’re getting ideas from them.”

A plan to rent out part of the back of the building as a funky office space to a German internet start-up, which would have added a buzz to the centre, fell through.

“We still might be able to do some office stuff on the mezzanine level later on, but it’s all on the back burner for now.”

The revival plan is fluid for now. There have been incremental improvements, such as new tables and palm trees on the George’s Dock side, as well as a high-speed wifi system.

“The download volumes shows that more and more people are coming in to use it during the day. If we get traffic moving through, then all the units will benefit.”

Isdell’s emigration story is of an odyssey. His father worked in forensics for the RUC, and in the 1950s emigrated with his family to work for the police in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, now called Zambia.

Isdell recalls a deluge of sights and smells on his first day in Africa as a child.“We flew into Cape Town, then travelled for three days by train to reach Lusaka.

“I was captivated by the whole continent.” It sparked a lifelong interest in the natural world, and later, in philanthropic work such as promoting anti malaria programs.


Breakneck growth
“I never felt African – or maybe I felt African, but in a different way. It was a segregated society,” he says. Isdell became involved with the anti-apartheid movement at university in Cape Town.

After university, Isdell returned to Zambia as a trainee manager in the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. His Coke story – he spent 43 years in total as part of the “family” – is one of ladder climbing and country hopping.

Isdell worked his way up to manage of Coca-Cola bottling in Johannesburg by 1972, aged 29. Stints followed – for both the bottlers that make and sell the final product and the “mothership” that makes the concentrate – in Australia, the Philippines and Germany, where he was stationed at the end of the 1980s.

He later headed up all of Coca-Cola’s operations in Europe, after opening up new markets in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Asia. In the late 1990s, he moved to Britain, before retiring in 2001 following two decades of breakneck growth.

The company’s star began to wane in the early part of the new millennium under the leadership of Doug Daft. Its marketing strategy faltered, it became embroiled in several environmental and ethical controversies, and Pepsi loomed large in its rear view mirror.

Isdell’s eyes twinkle as he tells of his return in 2004 – he is still a corporate warrior to the tips of his fingers.

“It was mid-morning in February, and I was sitting on my verandah at my home in Barbados when the phone rang,” he says. Isdell has four homes, with others in Atlanta, France and Cape Town.

“The company was losing share, it had tried to save its way to prosperity, morale was low and the data was ugly. The board could see that. I could too. I knew all the rumblings – the call wasn’t a total surprise.”

“A bunch of people” were advocating management change, and that Isdell be brought back to run things. He indicated he wasn’t interested. Don Keough, a Coke director and Irish-American business titan, kept up contact with Isdell.


Terrible marketing
“I told him I wasn’t in the race, that I was enjoying my retirement. But Don convinced me to think about it. As the weeks wore on, I didn’t rule myself out. There was something niggling me.

“Then I asked myself: ‘Can I really live with myself if I turn down the ultimate challenge?’ It hit me in the face. I told my wife I had to do it, and I was in.”

Isdell is proud that his name was only mentioned as a contender in one article. “I was reading all these articles in the Wall Street Journal planted by other people who wanted the job. But I had my head below the parapet.”

He took over in June, and immediately bared his teeth. The company’s president, Steve Heyer, had offended Coke’s biggest customer, McDonald’s, by bragging about a deal with Subway. McDonald’s then opened secret talks with Pepsi.

“He was creating ripples with McDonald’s – he clearly wasn’t the right person.” Isdell forced him out of the company.

He axed the head of marketing. “Our marketing was terrible – it didn’t reflect the core values of our brand.” He also brought in fellow Irishman Irial Finan to overhaul Coca-Cola’s underperforming bottling arm.

In his four years at the helm, Isdell displayed a relentless focus on re-establishing Coca-Cola’s dominance over Pepsi. He pushed it to fund water sustainability projects worldwide, and oversaw the creation of a suite of new sub-brands, such as Coke Zero, to widen its appeal.

“The real opportunity is to create a coke with zero calories that tastes exactly the same as real coke,” says Isdell, swigging the last from his plastic contoured bottle.

These days, as well as his managing his private investments, Isdell is focused on pushing his philosophy of “connected capitalism”. At the onset of the financial crisis, he argued that big business was “losing its social licence to operate”.

He advocates businesses putting social responsibility at the heart of their corporate strategies, in partnership with governments and civic society – “a triangle of sustainability”.

“Look at your own footprint. What are the negative things you are doing? You had better clean those up, and you need someone else to validate it,” he says. Discussion of the issue sparks him into life, but we run out of time.

He is confident of turning around CHQ, and is prepared to weather losses “for a few years”. He is also interested in buying more Irish property assets – though simpler ones than CHQ – and he is prepared to look outside Dublin.

“I have this thing about going slow to go fast later. You can appear to do things quickly, to make a difference. But if you do it incorrectly at the start, it can take a long time to unravel it.”

Just like his old product, Isdell is the real thing.

CV: Neville Isdell
Name: Neville Isdell
Position: Retired former chief executive of Coca-Cola. Owns Dublin’s CHQ
Age: 70
Education: Social science at the University of Cape Town; Harvard Business School
Family: Married to Pamela, with one daughter
Lives: Cape Town (February and March), France (June, July and August), with the rest of the year split between Atlanta and Barbados
Something you would expect: He loves Coke Zero
Something that might surprise: He believes he was capable of playing rugby at the highest level, but gave it up to build a career in business