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Coca-Cola wrestles protesters and issues at annual meeting

By Jim Lovel | Atlanta Business Chronicle | April 21, 2004

As The Coca-Cola Co. wrestled with questions about finding a successor to Chairman and CEO Doug Daft, the Wilmington, Del., police department wrestled one shareholder to the ground at Coke's annual meeting.

Shareholder Ray Rogers, the president of Corporate Campaign Inc., a New York group that has encouraged student protests across the nation for the past year to support union workers in Coke bottling plants in Colombia, addressed Coke and expressed concerns about Colombia. He was wrestled to the ground by six Wilmington police officers and forcibly removed from the meeting.

Rogers accused the company of being "rife with corruption" and accused Daft of lying about the company's role in human rights issues in Colombia.

The company turned off Rogers' microphone after about five minutes and tried to interrupt him. When he refused to stop talking, he was surrounded by six plainclothes Wilmington Police officers, who tried to move him from the microphone. As he continued to resist, he was wrestled to the ground and escorted out of the meeting. He was not injured or arrested.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who addressed the meeting about his concerns over the resignation of General Counsel Deval Patrick and other issues involving minority opportunities at Coke, admonished the company for removing Rogers with "excessive use" of power.

"This is against the dignity of this company," he said.

A representative of the Teamsters Union, which had submitted a shareholders' proposal to separate the roles of chairman and CEO, also objected to Rogers' removal.

"I am ashamed," the representative said.

Meanwhile, student protesters also hammered Coke on its alleged involvement with the mistreatment of union workers in Colombia and alleged contributing to environmental problems in India.

Nuelita John, a third-year student at Rutgers, told the company that students there were lobbying the school administration to not renew its $10 million contract with Coke when it expires June 30.

"You will be out of Rutgers," John said.

Crystal Yakacki, a third-year student at NYU, asked the company to conduct an investigation of the allegations in Colombia. Students at NYU plan a meeting next week to vote on banning Coca-Cola products from the campus. NYU does not have an exclusive contract with Coke.

At the beginning of the meeting, Daft addressed protesters' concerns, saying organized labor is "working overtime on college campuses" to organize boycotts of the company. He accused unions of "twisting facts" and making "false and outrageous" allegations against Coke.

"What is happening in Colombia is a tragedy," Daft said. "But the Coca-Cola Co. has nothing to do with it."

Jackson said he came to the annual shareholders meeting in response the Easter Sunday resignation of General Counsel Deval Patrick, who is also the company's highest ranking black executive. Patrick joined Coca-Cola in 2001, following the company's settlement of a racial discrimination suit filed by black employees.

In an apparent comparison to Jesus Christ, Jackson described Patrick as a "another Easter victim," and he said the company owed Patrick an apology.

Daft said that Patrick had "served this company exceedingly well" and he would work closely with Patrick through the end of the year.

Jackson delivered a letter to the board late on April 20 expressing his concerns that Coke is no longer working to include minorities in the company.

According to his letter, advertising and other media targeting black consumers was cut in half between 2002 and 2003, from $14 million to $7 million respectively. He also claimed money spent with minority owned ad agencies has been reduced from $3 million to $500,000 and the company's external supplier diversity council was disbanded in 2003.

"Commercials have been run during the past year that send ill-suited and demeaning messages to and about the African-American community," the letter said. "Although at least 15 percent of U.S. revenues are derived from communities of color, there are still serious questions of lack of reciprocity that linger."

Jackson said he's been working with Coca-Cola on diversity since 1981.

Coke also addressed questions about finding a successor for Daft, who will resign at the end of 2004. The company has considered "dozens and dozens" and interviewed "several" candidates.

"We will do it in a very short period of time," said Don Keough, board member and chairman of Coke's search committee. "To say any more would be irresponsible."

Also at the meeting, shareholders re-elected the entire board of directors. All of the directors got 96 percent of the vote, except board member and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who got 84 percent.

On April 18, The California Public Employees Retirement System (Calpers), the biggest U.S. public pension, said it would withhold its vote to re-elect Buffett and several other directors due to what it perceives as their conflicting business relationships with Coke.

Seventy-five percent of shareholders also voted against separating the jobs of CEO and chairman.

Coke's board has also appointed Donald R. Knauss executive vice president. Knauss was named president and chief operating officer of Coke's North American operations in February.

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