In 1948, Roberto Goizueta ’49 boarded a plane from Cuba, landed in New York City, and made his way to Cheshire Academy for one year of high school. Though he was, “hardly [...] able to speak a word of English,” as he said in his Commencement Address in 1982, hard work and diligence enabled him to earn valedictorian for his year. He went on to achieve a degree in chemical engineering from Yale University and become CEO of the Coca-Cola corporation.
If you ask me to define my father, one word I’d probably say is ‘student.’ He was always learning and would therefore surround himself with people whose expertise was different than his own,” said Goizueta’s son, Roberto S. Goizueta. The elder Goizueta’s pursuit of knowledge began early. As was expected, following his graduation from Yale, the engineer returned to his home country to apply his newfound-skill to the family business. However, Goizueta was hungry for the critical feedback he could only expect to get at an organization to which he was an outsider. He is quoted in “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” by David Greising, as saying, “It was obvious to me, that no matter what I did, everyone would say it was great because I was the owner’s son. I knew I would always be the owner's son. It got to the point that I didn’t know whether I was in fact good or I wasn’t.”
To learn his worth, Goizueta applied to an ad in the paper for a chemist at Cia Embotelladora, owned by the Coca-Cola company. Though he was newly married to his high school sweetheart, Olguita Casteleiro, and expecting their first child, Goizueta took a fifty-percent reduction in pay and worked six days a week. The dedicated future-CEO worked for his father on Saturdays to retain his ties to the family business, to which he was expected to return.
The early relationship with Coca-Cola defined Goizueta’s entire life trajectory. His relationship with an American company helped make possible Goizueta's escape from the Castro regime in 1960. He entered the country on a work-related visa with only $200 of his family’s fortune in his pocket, according to Greising. In addition, working in a bottling plant overseeing quality control and systems of production for three plants gave Goizueta the necessary background to move ahead in the company. He, along with a former classmate-turned coworker, even took a lead role in launching a bottling plant in Camaguey during this time. In his book, Greising wrote, “The two young managers worked all night, taking turns sleeping on sacks of petrified sugar waiting to be dissolved once the line was up and running.”
While Goizueta began his career managing bottling systems, he was quick to apply technical objectives to broader brand objectives. In a 1957 paper proposing a process to eradicate the rusty rings on the outside of Coca-Cola bottles produced in his plant, Goizueta wrote, “What would happen if a person asks for Coca-Cola after reading in one of our posters that Coca-Cola is pure and wholesome, and finds out that the bottle he is given is dirty if only on the outside?” His tendency toward tying processes to brand objectives marked Goizueta early on as someone destined to move higher in the organization. In fact, one of his more visible roles in the Atlanta headquarters was evaluating processes company-wide and presenting his recommendations to standardize processes that would help Coca-Cola expand further internationally while maintaining set benchmarks, according to Greising’s book.
Though the many articles that discuss Goizueta’s career often begin with his time as a chemist, very few delve into the details of his relationship to the recipe for one of the most well-known drinks in the world. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Goizueta was the only one of the six [candidates to become CEO of Coca-Cola] allowed to have “the knowledge” — the formula for making Coca-Cola, one of the most closely guarded industrial secrets in the world.” Only one other employee at Coca-Cola knew the recipe.
eyond simply knowing the recipe, however, Goizueta also had a hand in adjusting the familiar drink. “He successfully persuaded [then chairman of the finance committee and board of directors] Woodruff to replace half the sugar in Coke with high-fructose corn syrup, saving the company $100 million a year,” wrote Greising. The taste of Coca-Cola that many of us know today was directly shaped by Goizueta.
Adjusting the billion-dollar recipe was a risk, however Goizueta was known for taking chances— as long as those chances were backed by research. That, along with his focus on investment return, is part of what allowed him to revitalize the brand. His tenure at the helm of the global organization was widely considered a success; he raised share prices by 20 percent in 1990 and by 73 percent in 1991, according to “For God, Country, and Coca-Cola,” by Mark Pendergrast. But not all risks paid off—at least according to public perception, anyway.
Goizueta led the company through the New Coke debacle, which launched public outrage and petitions to bring back the original recipe. “My father was someone who didn’t waste energy rehashing the past,” said his son. “A good example of this is the New Coke decision.” While other men might dwell on the apparent mistake, then-CEO Goizueta focused only on the present. “For him it was like, ‘Okay, where do we go from here?’ And he turned what for somebody else might have been [...] a career ending disaster [into a] positive.” The elder Goizueta brought back the original recipe, labeling it Classic Coke, and sales rose by 29 percent, according to one “Times” article.
While he might not have dwelt on the past in his personal or business life, Goizueta’s experiences certainly influenced his philosophy. At Coca-Cola, Goizueta’s knowledge of science, politics, and human nature coalesced into a unique philosophy of leadership, one that valued bringing people together, balancing profit with corporate responsibility, and learning continuously throughout his lifetime. His philosophy was strongly influenced by his exodus from Cuba, at which time all of his family’s possessions, including the dictionary he was given in honor of his Cheshire Academy valedictorian award, were confiscated by the government. “I urge you to keep acquiring knowledge. No one can ever take that away from you,” said Goizueta to the Class of 1982.
A life-long learner, Goizueta believed that education was the key to a better world. He said, “It is only through broad knowledge that we can recognize and grasp opportunity when it comes along. It is only through broad knowledge that we can even vaguely visualize what a better world might be like. It is only through broad knowledge that we can make moral and ethical distinctions.” Said his son, “He was intellectually curious, which I think contributed to his global vision of the company and just of education as a whole. He was always pushing for greater globalization: What can we learn from other cultures, other people? He was an immigrant himself of course; that was a part of his DNA, that’s who he was.”
Goizueta was a blend of many things: Two cultures, Cuban and American and two disciplines, science and humanism. He took his varied experiences and created a signature leadership style that left a lasting mark on one of the most iconic brands in America and, through his foundation’s charitable giving, on educational institutions around the United States.