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.
After less than two years, Minnick had scored successes. She helped launch drinks like Coca-Cola Blak and Enviga, a green tea beverage developed with Nestle. She fired the company's ad agency and oversaw the acclaimed "Coke Side of Life" advertising campaign.
In the end, Minnick helped align Coke with what consumers wanted. "The fruits of her labors are still being born," Swartzberg says. And in an internal memo, Isdell credited Minnick's team with creating an "enduring pipeline of innovation."
Still, Isdell picked Muhtar Kent, 54, as second in charge and his possible successor as CEO.Even though the CEO spot might one day have been hers, Minnick says, "I'm not sure waiting at Coke made sense."
Minnick acknowledges often butting heads with colleagues: "There were things I wanted to do and accomplish, so I was very focused and driven," she says. In 2000, when her cost cutting raised hackles in Coke's Asia division, then CEO Douglas Daft flew to Japan to support her, telling critics, "This woman will be here longer than you."
So Minnick's refocus toward the personal side of life might seem surprising. But she contends it was a slow evolution that mirrored trends in society. Early in her career, women were entering the corporate world in greater numbers, working hard to earn the respect of male colleagues and even sometimes dressing like them. "I must have had 50 different bow ties," Minnick says.
But as the hard-charging style of the 1980s, when Minnick moved to a different country every couple of years, gave way to the 1990s idea of balance, Minnick also started thinking about life outside work. Then, three years ago, during a fishing trip in England's Hampshire countryside, she met Simon Cooper, who owns a fly-fishing tour company and is now her partner. "It completely changed what was important to me," Minnick says.
Minnick doesn't wear bow ties these days, but she's not hanging up her business suits anytime soon. "I'm not ready to consult or just sit on boards or do nonprofits," she says. She has found her role at Lion Capital, which invests in consumer companies like Kettle Foods, Orangina, and Weetabix. "I'm not hung up on the title of CEO," she says, "but I have reached a point where I want to have a direct line of influence on what a company is and where it heads."
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.