Ending five months of turmoil, corporate infighting and swirling rumors, Coca-Cola Co. this morning announced to its employees that its president and chief operating officer, Steven Heyer, is leaving the company.
Mr. Heyer's departure comes just one week after the man who beat him out for the top job, E. Neville Isdell, took over as chairman-CEO.
And it was Mr. Isdell who personally sent out the memo to the company's worldwide staff this morning detailing the end of Mr. Heyer's association with the company that many expected him to end up running.
In his memo, Mr. Isdell wrote, "Steve and I have been discussing the future for some time now. Yesterday, we had a good conversation, during which we both agreed on a number of things, including that we both love this Company and we want to do what's best for it. We also agreed that Steve -- not surprisingly -- has his own personal goals. He's got things he wants to accomplish ... and given all he has done for our Company over the past few years, we should all help Steve achieve his objectives."
"That’s why," Mr. Isdell wrote, "Steve and I agreed that he could best realize his aspirations outside of the Company, where he plans to take advantage of the limitless opportunities for a talented executive of his caliber."
Mr. Heyer released a statement just a short time ago that said he believes Coca-Cola "today is on a well-conceived strategic course and is hitting its stride both financially and operationally. With outstanding new senior leadership coming on board, this is the right time for me to pursue new opportunities. Over the months ahead, I will do all I can to help Neville assure a smooth transition."
Up until today, Mr. Heyer and company executives had maintained that he would remain with the marketer despite broad speculation that he would leave.
There is no specific timetable for his departure, a company spokeswoman said.
"Overall, we don't see any positives in Mr. Heyer's departure," said Bonnie Herzog, a beverage analyst for Citigroup Smith Barney, who like most of Wall Street rallied behind Mr. Heyer as its pick for the CEO spot. "Mr. Heyer's accomplishments and the respect he commands in the industry were strong attributes."
"Management uncertainty continues at Coca-Cola," she said, pointing out that the company will have a new CEO, potentially a new chief operating officer, a new head of North America, and several other senior executives. "Therefore, change is clearly in the air at Coke and we maintain our hold on the stock," Ms. Herzog added.
While many insiders expressed a sense of relief over the resolution of Mr. Heyer's status, Bill Pecoriello, an analyst with Morgan Stanley and perhaps Mr. Heyer's biggest cheerleader, called Mr. Heyer's departure "a big loss" in a note to investors.
Mr. Pecoriello said the departure "leaves a big hole in Coke's organization in terms of marketing strategy and planning," and that he expects Mr. Isdell to begin a search for senior marketing and creative executives. He questioned whether Mr. Isdell can be the change agent Mr. Heyer was and that he feels Coke "desperately" needs.
"Steve Heyer, who came from outside the beverage industry, played a critical role in strategy, marketing and getting the company to think about new ways of connecting with consumers," Mr. Pecoriello said.
Mr. Heyer, who is widely viewed as a marketing visionary, joined the company in 2001 and skyrocketed to a prominence that made his ultimate ascension to the top spot seem a sure thing. But that all changed suddenly in February when then Chairman-CEO Douglas Daft unexpectedly announced he would retire but made only cryptic remarks about the search for his successor.
It soon became apparent that the same visions that made Mr. Heyer a star in the emerging world of Madison & Vine marketing left him at odds with the traditional thinking of the conservative board of directors charged with picking Mr. Daft's successor.