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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

A Biography of the Boss: Robert W. Woodruff (Part 4 - The Later Years)

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

SOURCES: Robert Winship Woodruff: A Biography of the Boss by Charles Elliott, 1979. Heritage Park: A Celebration of the Industrial Heritage of Columbus, Georgia by Dr. John S. Lupold, 1999.


In spite of its eternal battle with the beer, wine and fruit industries, Coca-Cola became the prestige drink in many countries, often acquiring a social status much higher than it enjoyed in the land of its birth. It often substituted for champagne, wine and beer at weddings, garden parties, formal dinners and occasionally religious ceremonies in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. For Coke there are no barriers of custom, race, or religious creeds. Simply and without question, it is the “universal drink.” In the second part of this series, we told the story of Coca-Cola from its inception, when it crawled onto the American stage; of its slow walk into various parts of the world; and finally, under Woodruff, the progress made to expand the horizons both at home and abroad of the Coca-Cola empire. The jet age of Coca-Cola really began when Japan brought America into the second World War with their shells and guns at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Much of the world had been at war since 1939.

With America at war, Woodruff pledged all the resources of The Coca-Cola Company to the war effort. It is possible that the military, knowing that America might be on the verge of getting into the war checked back on Woodruff’s World War I record. So, they called on him again. The request had absolutely nothing to do with Coca-Cola or with any type of product that might fall naturally into the background and experience of The Coca-Cola Company technical staffs. The Ordnance Department wanted Woodruff to build and operate an efficient plant to load bags of gunpowder for use in artillery cannons. Woodruff thought this over and even discussed it with several friends in the top echelon of the business world – men whose opinions he highly valued. He realized that what the Ordnance Department wanted was not so much the technical know-how in ammunition, but the kind of precision operation for which The Coca-Cola Company was noted. Woodruff, a dedicated American, followed through on his pledge to lend every possible effort to the war and agreed to take on the powder-loading job. One of his specifications in accepting this enormous job was that his company would handle it with no expectations of profit. In late January 1941, almost a year before Pearl Harbor, the company signed a contract to build, equip, and manage this powder operation. Woodruff and his staff selected a site near the sprawling DuPont powder plant in Alabama and Woodruff named his new subsidiary “Brecon Loading Company.” The contribution of this Coca-Cola subsidiary was invaluable to the war effort.

This time, when America entered the war, the question of the price sugar (as it was during and following WWI) was not nearly as important as the acute shortage of it. Sugar was in shorter supply than most other foods in the United States throughout nearly all of World War II. It was the first food to be rationed after the outbreak of war and the only one not removed from ration control before 1946. We were cut off from one of the vast sources of supply, and there was no way the home production could begin to make up this deficit. There simply was not enough for home consumption and to ration out to our troops stationed around the world. It was Woodruff’s decision that The Coca-Cola Company willingly share a portion of its tremendous stockpile of sugar with the home folks and with the men in service. Woodruff’s statement was to the point, “We are delighted to do anything and everything we can toward winning the war.”

A young boy and a bulldozer operator with the 64th Seabees drinking cokes in Tubabao, Samar, the Philippines. Gift of James L. Dale, The National WWII Museum Inc., 2003.083.059

Sugar rationed on the home front meant the curtailment of all manufactured products using it. The Coca-Cola Company, the largest user of pure granulated sugar on earth, was one of these. It meant that the company would have to greatly curtail the output of its product. Woodruff’s built-in computer sorted out the pieces and put them in order. No matter how complex his calculations were, they arrived at the amazing but simple decision. His company, regardless of cost, would make Coca-Cola available at a nickel a drink to every member of the armed forced, no matter where in the world they might be stationed. All he needed was the approval and cooperation of the Department of Defense. When he proposed this to the military, they not only responded enthusiastically, but pledged their full cooperation.

Of all the momentous decisions Woodruff ever made in business, this probably was the most farsighted. It fulfilled a sizeable number of important obligations. The first was patriotic. It represented a touch of home to every service man, wherever he might be and under whatever circumstances. A bottle of Coca-Cola represented his country and many of the other things for which he was fighting. Patriotism was possible uppermost in Woodruff’s mind when he made the decision to supply soldiers wherever they might be with five-cent bottles of Coke, but this was only part of his decision. With what sugar was rationed to the company, it could make syrup for the home consumption and at least a part of the foreign trade. A virtually unlimited supply of sugar was available for use by, and in products for, the armed forces. This would keep most of the plants in operation. Woodruff by no means overlooked the tremendous impact his collaboration with the military would have on future markets for his drink, both with the boys coming home from the war and the introduction of Coca-Cola into lands where it might not be known. He was looking far, far ahead.

The staff of the Coca-Cola bottling plant established on Saipan. Gift of Precilla Porche, The National WWII Museum Inc., 2001.464.002

Although bottling plants were scattered worldwide, in many corners of the globe they were too far removed from military outposts and actual battle lines. To remedy this, Woodruff had his technicians develop portable bottling plants, which had approximately the same priority with the armed services as guns and ammunition. These were hauled by military transport to wherever they were needed to keep the troops supplied with Coca-Cola. The first plants were rebuilt equipment; later, in spite of the shortage of metals and materials, new bottling units were authorized and shipped overseas. With these The Coca-Cola Company sent along its own “colonels” to supervise the setting up and operation of these plants. The Coca-Cola plants doing military service were placed wherever they were needed to supply Coke to the service men. They were moved at the discretion of the military forces and The Coca-Cola Company. They appeared on all the continents in places never before served by the Export Corporation. One plant was dismantled in India, flown piece by piece over the Himalayas and set up again in China. One of the prized communications in Woodruff’s office was the copy of a telegram from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to the High Command Headquarters in Washington ordering three million bottles of Coca-Cola and ten complete bottling plants with all the equipment and supplies. At the time this was top secret communication, for from it the enemy could have deduced that the Allies intended to invade North Africa. Another report was when Japan surrendered, a number of Coca-Cola plants were stored away in the hold of a naval vessel, waiting to follow the troops ashore. Later Eisenhower ordered more plants to follow his troops ashore after the Normandy invasion.

Many of the Coca-Cola plants during World War II, especially those in occupied territories, were closed during the war and later re-opened by Coca-Cola representatives who were citizens of those countries. Germany, however, owned their subsidiary of Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola G.m.b.H, since 1929) and managed to keep their plants in operation throughout the war.

Max Keith, who met Robert Woodruff in 1933, became supervisor of all production in Germany. One of Keith’s first marketing triumphs was supplying massive amounts of Coke to the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.

After World War II began, Coca-Cola concentrate was no longer available in Germany. While Keith had a supply on hand, he rationed it carefully and even managed to smuggle in a modest amount of concentrate from Switzerland. He soon realized he needed to create an alternate drink to keep everything going. Keith created Fanta from fruits, carbonated water, and other locally available ingredients.

Max Keith never actually joined the Nazi Party but was willing to work with the Third Reich to keep the plants operating with official approval. He would also travel with high command permission. This allowed him to spread Fanta across Europe and save other subsidiaries from shutting down. The German branch sold about three million cases of Fanta before the war was over.

When the Allies eventually marched on German factories, production of Fanta ceased, and Keith handed over the profits of his creation to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. Coca-Cola G.m.b.H. continued to bottle and market Fanta until 1949 when the supply lines to unlimited Coca-Cola concentrate again opened and the plants were able to get back into full production. The next year The Coca-Cola Company acquired the Fanta trademark from Coca-Cola G.m.b.H. and spread the drink worldwide.

(Editor's Note: In a statement, Coca-Cola told Business Insider that there is no indication that Max Keith collaborated with the Third Reich. Robert Woodruff, for his part, maintained close relations with Keith before the war. For both men, the top priority was ensuring the prosperity of Coca-Cola.)

There is no way to estimate the tremendous impact the act of supplying Coca-Cola to all the troops had on the drink throughout the world. The world market, which had been brought along at a satisfactorily fast clip during the almost two decades since Woodruff organized The Coca-Cola Export Corporation, simply exploded. The complaint of the other soft drink companies that the expansion of The Coca-Cola empire had been done at government expense was legitimate enough, but they couldn’t make too much noise about it. Woodruff had established the whole operation as a patriotic gesture, and anyone making a public issue of the product’s gain on that basis would even further advertise the drink and its prestigious niche built into the mind of mankind. Because company rules specified a retirement age, Robert W. Woodruff officially retired from The Coca-Cola Company on January 1, 1955, less than a month after his 65th birthday. Theoretically this meant giving up any authority he might have over the control of the company and its operations. He remained on the board of directors, but the only title he kept was chairman of the finance committee.

The Coca-Cola Company was his baby. While he had not been present at its birth or even through its toddling years, he had adopted it as a weakling, unsteady on its feet, and had fathered and mothered it into a giant. Perhaps he was no longer Boss of The Coca-Cola Company in name, but Woodruff remained the Boss in performance and spirit. He continued to operate as before. No shifts in the higher echelon of personnel, no policies or major decisions involving the present or the future of the company were made without his approval. He continued to run his company down to the details where they mattered.

In retirement Woodruff also remained closely involved in the affairs of his hometown of Atlanta. The city fathers made few decisions concerning its progress or its future without first talking them over with the man at 310 North Avenue. Though he never ran for or held any public office, Woodruff’s influence on civic matters, from local to national, was strong. He also practiced the rare art of making good things come true for people who deserved but least expected them. Many of these he did anonymously, and this gave him some of the most enjoyable moments of his life. That was the way Robert Woodruff want it during the greater part of his life. It went against his nature to be “loudly thanked” or to occupy any part of the stage where others were involved. He felt that he could accomplish more in business and get more out of his personal life by letting others take the credit.

The last chapter of Charles Elliot’s book is entitled “The Woodruff Business and Personal Philosophy.” One of the final moments in the chapter of his philosophy is a list of five simple points from an article in Forbes Magazine, “Capsule Course in Human Relations.” 1. Five most important words: I am proud of you. 2. Four most important words: What is your opinion? 3. Three most important words: If you please. 4. Two most important words: Thank you. 5. Least important word: I. Robert Woodruff died on March 7, 1985, at the age of 95. He was buried at the Westview Cemetery in southwest Atlanta. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation received funds from the estate and continues his legacy of philanthropy in the state of Georgia. NEXT WEEK: We will kick off a new series for Black History Month - More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver. This is a relatively new book from Edith Powell. We hope you will join us!

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