Robert W. Woodruff, 95, who became president of Coca-Cola in 1923 when the company was almost bankrupt and made its name a household word around the world, died March 7 at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The cause of death was not reported, but he had been in deteriorating health since suffering two strokes in the early 1970s.
A legend in the U.S. business community for more than a half century, Mr. Woodruff was an aggressive promoter and a gifted salesman, and he created a far-flung network of independent bottlers and distributors that eventually made Coke available in virtually all parts of the globe.
At his death, the company's revenues had reached $7.4 billion annually, and Coca-Cola sold in 155 foreign countries. Profits last year were more than $500 million.
"I took the company and spread it around the world -- with the help of a lot of fine people," he said in 1981.
Mr. Woodruff built a mystique around the secret formula for the drink, which is kept in a special vault at the Trust Company of Georgia Bank in Atlanta. Only a few senior officials of the company are privy to its contents, and chemists from rival soft drink companies have tried unsuccessfully for decades to analyze and duplicate the process.
During World War II, Mr. Woodruff scored a marketing coup by announcing that the company "would see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever it costs."
The government promptly accepted his offer and ended up paying not only most of the cost of transporting Cokes to American GIs around the world but also the cost of many of the parts needed to build bottling plants. Sugar, tightly rationed at home, was made available in unlimited supplies to produce Cokes for the troops. By the time the war ended American servicemen had consumed 5 billion bottles of Coca-Cola and the company had built 64 bottling plants overseas.
Mr. Woodruff was 33 and a dropout from Emory University when he left the presidency of an Atlanta trucking company to become head of Coca-Cola, which his father, Ernest Woodruff, had purchased with a group of other businessmen four years earlier for $25 million. For a variety of reasons, including a steep rise in the price of sugar after World War I, the company was deeply in debt, including a $22 million note to a New York bank, which was holding the secret formula for Coca-Cola as collateral.
Mr. Woodruff launched an ambitious advertising and marketing campaign, organized a foreign sales department, and within a few years paid off the debt and got back the secret formula. By 1930, the company was earning an annual profit of more than $13 million.
Over the next half century, Mr. Woodruff amassed a personal fortune that made him one of the richest men in the country. His family and Coca-Cola established five foundations worth more than $500 million, and since 1937 Mr. Woodward contributed $215 million to Emory University, the school he left over the objections of his parents after then 1908-1909 academic year. He also contributed millions of dollars to cultural and recreational organizations in Atlanta.
Mr. Woodruff became chairman of Coca-Cola's board of directors in 1939. He retired officially in 1955 but continued to be a major influence in the company as chairman of the finance committee of the board.
He launched Coca-Cola's diversification drive that began in the 1960s with the acquisition of Minute Maid Corp. and continued through the 1970s with the purchase of Taylor Wine Co. and into the 1980s with the takeover of Columbia Pictures. In 1981 he stepped down as chairman of the finance committee, but continued as a director until last year.
Robert Winship Woodruff was born in Columbus, Ga., on Dec. 6, 1889. He grew up in Atlanta and barely managed to earn a high school diploma from the Georgia Military Academy. He assumed the helm at Coca-Cola -- which was first produced in Atlanta in 1886 from a formula that includes coca leaves and kola nuts -- when most of the sales were at drugstore fountains. Among other innovations, he developed six-bottle cartons and coin-operated vending machines.
Before the death of his wife, Nell Kendall Hodgson Woodruff, in 1968, Mr. Woodruff was active in society and entertained at his mansion in Atlanta, a duplex apartment in New York City, and at "Ichuaway," his 37,000-acre plantation and game preserve in south Georgia that he maintained in the tradition of the antebellum South.
He had played golf with former president Eisenhower, hunted quail with baseball great Ty Cobb, a fellow Georgian and an early investor in Coca-Cola, and dined with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, former president Harry S Truman and Joseph P. Kennedy.
Mr. Woodruff had no children and is survived by a brother, George.