Coca-Cola offers billion-dollar diversity plans

Minority suppliers and entrepreneurs to benefit most

The Coca-Cola Co. arguably has the world’s most recognizable and widely used product lines: from New York to Nairobi, people have enjoyed a Coke. But the company, which produces and sells its goods globally, is now focusing on coming to a neighborhood near you. Recently announcing twin $1 billion investment initiatives in Africa and the United States, Coke Chairman and CEO Douglas Daft said the efforts are part of the company’s commitment to diversity in empowerment and entrepreneurship.

Coke’s U.S. initiative aims to increase spending with more minorities, particularly African American-and women-owned businesses. Over the next five years, Coke’s U.S. initiative will increase its annual spending with minority suppliers to an average of $160 million, a jump of more than 50%. Coke also plans to identify more potential minority partners through increased cooperation with the National Minority Supplier Development Council (N.M.S.D.C.). The company will double its financial support to the N.M.S.D.C.’s Business Consortium Fund from $500,000 to $1 million annually.

“This is a logical extension of our ‘think local, act local’ strategy, and our desire to become a model citizen in the communities we serve,” Daft said in a statement.

Programs like these have tremendous impact on local economies, says Carl H. Ware, executive vice president of Coke. “Through them, we . . . work with our neighbors to build strong communities and foster a climate of entrepreneurial opportunity,” Ware says.

On the African continent, the company has pledged to spend $200 million over the next three years in South Africa alone. The money will be used to update the more than 140 bottling facilities across the continent which, according to the company, will significantly help local business
development.

The diversity initiative sounds good to investors who have watched Coke’s stock take a beating over the past year. In the year since Coke’s European poisoning scare and shake-ups in senior management — where even Ware, the company’s highest-ranking African American executive, was on his way out the door until Daft persuaded him to stay (see “Ware Promoted, Will Stay at Coke,” Newspoints, May 2000) — its stock has gone from near $70 a year ago to $42 in March and is showing signs of climbing back up.

Roy Burry, senior vice president at New York’s Brown Brothers Harriman, a private banking firm, said Coke is still a good buy despite the turmoil. But the phrase “shared success,” which Coke’s spokespeople systematically pour out, isn’t impressing everyone.

A group of eight former and current black employees are still engaged in a discrimination lawsuit against the soft drink bottling company. Black employees rallied at a Coke shareholders meeting in April, calling for a boycott to pressure Coke to settle. In May, a federal judge allowed the group to consider amending its year-old case to class-action status. If it does, nearly 2,000 other potential plaintiffs will be added to the case.

H. Lamar Mixson, an attorney of the law firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, Atlanta, who is representing the plaintiffs, questioned Coke’s global generosity in light of its continuing internal strife. Some critics have said the

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