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The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company Hardcover – February 3, 2004

3.7 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Coca-Cola has become such a ubiquitous American symbol such that it's often hard to distinguish where mere substance ends (its formula is a secret as closely held as military stealth technology) and its seductively overwhelming marketing begins. But in the 1980s and '90s, Coke's new corporate management evolved it from a reliable, if sometimes stodgy, icon of American industry into one of the hottest stocks in a notoriously overheated bull market. That explosive corporate evolution is the focus of veteran NY Times beverage industry reporter Constance Hays' cautionary business history. Eschewing strict chronology in favor of skillfully weaving in appropriate pieces of the company's complex legacy and unique coporate culture to underscore their impact on the contemporary story at hand, Hays carefully dissects a company billed in boom years as a virtual perpetual profit machine of boundless potential. Coke's growth was largely the product of Roberto Goizueta, the methodical, Cuban-born chemist who'd risen through the company's ranks and outflanked fellow veteran executive/personable "super salesman" Don Keough to become its CEO. Goizueta may have been able to rise above the hubris-fueled "New Coke" reformulation fiasco of the mid-80s, but his penchant for ruthless market expansion, corporate rejiggering and tight control of the company's operating details and financial numbers would also sow the seeds for the inevitable collapse that halved Coke's value. That implosion quickly took down successor CEO Doug Forrester--ironically the original financial architect of much of the company's remarkable boom. While this is largely a business history and not a cultural one, it's filled with a wealth of telling human details: corporate pressures exerted on family-owned Coke bottlers to sell out; an obscure academic/stock analyst whose curiosity helped unravel the company's financial secrets; Machiavellian corporate politics where one era's loser becomes another's cautious victor. --Jerry McCulley

From Publishers Weekly

Hays, who spent three years covering the food and beverage industry for the New York Times, focuses on the recent efforts by Coca-Cola not just to win the cola wars but to become the most dominant beverage of all. Early chapters effectively segue back and forth between Coke's modern global strategy and the company's first century of increasing dominance. Founder Asa Candler envisioned Coke as a fountain drink, and thought so little of other sales methods he gave two men bottling rights to nearly all of America in 1899, resulting in a patchwork of plants where the sodas was made and distributed. Hays deftly shows how these local bottlers were crucial in establishing Coke's public image, yet often possessed an independent streak that rankled the company's corporate leaders, who eventually sought to regain control over much of the operations, with mixed results. She clearly admires the ambition and dedication of executives like Roberto Goizeuta and Doug Ivester, allowing much of the story to unfold from their perspective, but doesn't flinch from chronicling missteps like the attempt to beat the Pepsi Challenge with New Coke. And even though the final chapters depict the shattering of the Coke myth and the onset of financial woes, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether Hays is simply reporting on the new management's belief in its ability to bounce back or buying into their vision. Readers won't uncover the secrets of Coca-Cola the drink, but they'll learn a lot about what lies behind Coca-Cola the world's most powerful brand.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (February 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375505628
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375505621
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,059,354 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By D. H. Richards on March 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
First of all, I have to recommend a far superior history of coke's first 100 years, Mark Pendergrast's "For God, Country and Coca-Cola..." Pendergrast's well researched (over researched?) book neatly and clearly tells the story of how the company started and ended up in the late 80s.
In some ways Hays book is a sequel. At its best it tells the story of what happened to the giant syrup manufacturer after 1990. But the main problem with the book is Hays insistence on a non-linear style that works poorly when presenting history. She often starts a story and then stop--moving on to pick up another thread. Sometimes she comes back to finish the first thread, often she just mentions it in passing in another thread. The result is a convoluted, hard to follow story of Coke in the 1990s. Perhaps it is a refreshing change from the straight forward "and then this happened" approach, but it makes for difficult reading.
Hays does a good job researching, she obviously spoke with many key people in Coke's world (or used other sources). Often though the book reads like a magazine article, long on colorful quotes and interesting asides, short on a central narrative drive.
If you have read Pendergrast and want to get updated (through the turn of the century at least) then Hays will do the job. But if you know only vague details about Coke then you should start with For God, Country and Coca-Cola.
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Format: Hardcover
New York Times reporter Constance Hays is an excellent business journalist, but her book is already so dated that it is no more than a mundane history book. Unfortunately, it pretends to be a contemporary analysis of The Coca Cola Company's management practices. And, in this regard it just fails.
The book spends a long time on the origin of this all American company. It also develops well the very successful 16 year tenure of Roberto Goizeta from 1981 until his surprising death in 1997. It does a good job of covering the miserable and short tenure of Douglas Ivester from 1997 to 1999. He made so many mistakes within such a short time, that he was forced out before he could do any more damage.
Unfortunately, Hays hardly covers the valiant efforts of Daft, CEO from 1999 until February 2004 to turnaround the company. Thus, her criticism of Coke's management leadership is already two CEOs and nearly four years behind as the book just hits the stores. For this explicit reason, I would pass it up.
Instead, I recommend a similar but far superior book written by another top notch NY Times journalist: The End of Detroit: How the Big Three lost their grip on the American Car Market written by Micheline Maynard. Maynard's analysis is far sharper, current, and relevant than is Hays' in The Real Thing.
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Format: Hardcover
Many of those who are already familiar with the long and colorful history of the Coca-Cola Company may share my own curiosity about the problems it has struggled with in recent years. What happened? A question of greater interest to me, what caused all the problems after a century of increasingly greater sales and profits? In this volume, Hays provides a brief but sufficient review of the company's history through 1980 before focussing the bulk of her attention on Robert C. Goizueta's 17 years as CEO until his unexpected death in 1997, and then on M. Douglas Ivester who succeeded Goizueta for only two years until being forced out. In certain respects, Hays resembles a cultural anthropologist as she rigorously analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the two CEOs as they struggled (with mixed success) to sustain the Coca-Cola Company's market dominance, both domestically and internationally. As she presents her material, I was convinced that many of the problems they faced and some of which they inherited are similar to those which Louis V. Gerstner encountered when he became CEO of IBM. Specifically, a highly political corporate culture, well-entrenched resistance to change, estrangement from customers, and contempt for early-warning signs of imminent deterioration of both prestige and profits.
To her credit, Hays demonstrates meticulous care and commendable circumspection when explaining that several of the problems which the Coca-Cola Company encountered during the past two decades were by no means unique as its globalization initiatives proceeded, given internal upheavals in emerging markets and currency devaluations over which it had little (if any) control.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Before reading this I had no idea there even was a Coca Cola empire. I suppose that if you lived in Atlanta, Coke's headquarters, you could not have avoided knowing this; for the rest of us, it's surprising. Now, let me describe what I mean by empire. The head of an empire has absolute power, and the reach of an empire is the entire world. That describes, or at least did describe, Coke. Even bringing in a soft drink from another company could you fired.

It all started with the president of the Coke company making lots of money selling syrup to soda fountains, which blinded him to the possibility of selling it any other way. Two businessmen came to him asking to bottle Coca Cola. He didn't see this as having much impact on his business, so he gave them a fixed price on syrup to the end of time, and a domain of almost the entire U.S. After they tried bottling Coca Cola they found it to be hard and dirty work, so they decided to franchise it out, and sell the syrup to their franchises at a profit. This started a real war between Coke and the bottlers.

I also found out that New Coke was only the latest change to the formula. I had assumed that the syrup formula was fixed, and had been forever, but apparently not. Now, that would not be a big deal, except that if Coke was able to call changing the recipe from using sugar to using high fructose corn syrup a new product, they would no longer be bound by the fixed price contract that had been frustrating them for so long.

The battles and the egos portrayed in "The Real Thing" makes this a page-turner, even though the book is non-fiction, and even though you already know the broad outlines before you even start reading it. That's quite an accomplishment.
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