Generous benefactor of Irish education

Donald Keough: May 25th, 1927 - February 26th, 2015

Donald Keough: granted citizenship in 2007 in recognition of his generosity to Ireland and Irish causes

Donald Keough: granted citizenship in 2007 in recognition of his generosity to Ireland and Irish causes

 

Donald Keough, who has died aged 87 in Atlanta, Georgia, was a notable exemplar of the rags-to-riches Irish-American story who became, in the late 20th and early 21st century, a household name in the twin fields of business and philanthropy.

His great-grandfather, Michael Keough, emigrated from Wexford in the 1840s and the family settled in Iowa, where Donald was born on the family farm in 1927. When the farm was destroyed by fire, the family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where the young Donald learned the cattle trade before joining the navy towards the end of the second World War.

GI Bill

Warren Buffett

After an early career as a television commentator (Johnny Carson was not only a contemporary but a presenter on the same station), he started work for a coffee company, which was later acquired by another company, Duncan Foods, which in turn was acquired by Coca-Cola.

Keough’s mentor, Charles Duncan of Duncan Foods, rose rapidly to become president of Coca-Cola in 1971, and Don Keough became president of what became the Coca-Cola Foods Division in the same year, and then head of all the Americas for the company in 1976.

During this decade he also secured the establishment of a major European Coca-Cola plant in Ireland. He became president, chief operating officer and director of the company in 1981.

He retired as president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola in 1993, after two decades during which the company grew exponentially, but not without controversy.

Employment practices at some of its overseas plants in Latin America led to protests in the United States, and public and political pressure on similar issues in South Africa led to changes in policy there.

In 1971, a massive advertising campaign based on the jingle “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” provoked protests, especially from younger Americans and others who had been galvanised into action by opposition to the Vietnam war and what they saw as US expansionism and neo-imperialism.

None of these, however, affected the company as deeply as its campaign to launch “New Coke” in 1985, which ranked as one of the biggest commercial failures of any multinational company at the time.

Conspiracy theorists, rarely in short supply where Coca-Cola was concerned, surmised that the company had intentionally changed the formula in the hope that consumers would demand the reinstatement of the original taste and thereby boost profits.

Not that dumb

The Ten Commandments for Business Failure

He remained a member of the Coca-Cola board until 2003 but, as he once put it himself, he “flunked retirement”, and remained active in a number of areas, not least as chairman of boutique US investment bank Allen & Company.

Increasingly, however, he was turning his attention to the land of his forefathers and fell under the spell of Fr Theodore Hesburgh, the charismatic president of Notre Dame university in Indiana (who also had Irish forebears).

Initially resistant to invitations from Notre Dame, Keough’s hesitation apparently melted away after a brief meeting with Fr Hesburgh, whose university then became a major beneficiary of his philanthropy: the Keough Institute of Irish Studies there benefited from his initial endowment of $2.5 million.

In partnership with Irish entrepreneurs like Martin Naughton and Michael Smurfit, his generosity also extended to the establishment of a centre in Dublin, to gifts to UCD and Trinity, and to a continuing flow of US students to these institutions.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement also saw Keough’s involvement in fundraising for Sinn Féin in the US, although his donations (and that of Coca-Cola) were modest by comparison with those of others.

Ironically, some of his generosity in that department in the early 2000s coincided with attacks by the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht for alleged human rights abuses in South America and India - charges the company has always strongly denied.

Networking skills

He made no secret of his view of the value of the EU connection for US businesses in Ireland such as Coca-Cola, and described Irish voters’ rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the first referendum on the matter in 2008 as “a fit of Euro-bashing pique worthy of the worst of Little Englandism”.

Following a number of significant awards by US organisations for his generosity to Ireland and Irish causes, he was granted Irish citizenship in 2007, as well as an honorary degree by Trinity College, and his standing was further endorsed not least by his nomination among the first recipients of the first annual Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs, in 2012.

He is survived by his widow, Marilyn (“Mickie”) Mulhall, whom he married in September 1949, and by their six children.