The Pause That Refreshes
Please don't call Mary Minnick a chief marketing officer. She was often called that at Coca-Cola but is not a fan of the title, which she says shortchanged her final contributions to the soft-drink giant. During her latter days at Coke as one of the highest-profile female executives in American business, Minnick was responsible for overhauling the company's entire research, strategy, and marketing divisions, redefining the corporate mission away from soda.
Freshly minted Coke CEO Neville Isdell summoned Minnick back to Atlanta from Hong Kong in 2005 for the just-created post. Because many of Coke's top minds had been leaving the company, "Mary Minnick was one of the folks who Neville Isdell was happy to find was there when he joined," says Mark Swartzberg, managing director at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. She "brought to the table the resolve to strengthen the core brand and the capability to become more innovative and aggressive where Coke has not been strong."
Initially reluctant to take the position, Minnick eventually embraced the wide-ranging role. "I was freed from the daily fire drills" of managing operations in 38 countries in Asia, she says. "I could truly think about what the company is and what it wants to be."
It also made her a rare sight in corporate executive suites, says Lois Joy, research director at Catalyst Inc., which found that last year women accounted for fewer than 16 percent of officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, down slightly from 2005. Minnick's "accomplishments are unusual because women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of corporate officer positions she was able to attain," Joy says.
So why did the highflying Coke lifer call it quits in February at the company that had been her home since 1983?
Coca-Cola politics spurred the decision, she says, as she was passed over for the job of chief operating officer. But ultimately, Minnick believed it was time to give priority to her life outside of work, after three years of commuting to London to see the man who is her partner.
In April, she took a post at British private-equity firm Lion Capital as a partner. Still, it's not quite the same as CEO, which she aspired to at Coke. These days, Minnick, 47, doesn't seem to mind. "I had spent 23 years doing what was right for the company," Minnick says. "I had reached a point in my personal life where another couple of years were not a good investment of my time for me."
When Minnick moved back to Atlanta, Coke was in dire need of sparkle. Investors were punishing the company for flat sales. She started by visiting companies known for ingenuity, such as 3M and W. L. Gore & Associates, maker of Gore-Tex, as well as organizational design specialists and professors who study innovation.
Flavor. What followed was a rebuilding of Coke's structure, bringing together groups that had never worked together in one department. Her team pored through consumer research and worked with newly hired flavor specialists to create the next wave of drinks.