Free trade must be promoted, says Coke chief

Neville Isdell, chief executive of
Coca-Cola, has criticised corporate leaders for not speaking out
against protectionism, warning that the failure of big business to
convince politicians and public opinion of the benefits of free trade
will harm global growth and companies’ profits.

In
a video interview with the Financial Times – in which he also indicated
that he would continue to lead the drinks group beyond his 65th
birthday next year – Mr Isdell said recent regulatory scandals had
prompted chief executives to steer clear of controversial topics such
as free trade.

Asked whether business leaders were doing enough to make a public
case against rising protectionist sentiment in the US, Mr Isdell said:
“No, I don’t think so. I think that, [after] what happened around Enron
and the like, a lot of us put our heads below the parapet.

“I think we’re now learning to bring our heads up above the parapet
again but I think, certainly on free trade, we need to be more
outspoken.”

Coca-Cola derives most of its profit from outside North America and
the comments from its chief underscore the difficulties faced by US
companies in influencing the political process on high-profile issues
such as globalisation.

US politicians are split over free trade amid rising concerns that
globalisation and low-cost manufacturing countries such as China and
India are hurting the US economy, causing job losses.

Mr Isdell accused opponents of free trade of “economic illiteracy”,
saying that, without further moves to boost free trade, the global
economy would suffer.

On the succession issue, Mr Isdell, who was called out of retirement
in 2004 to revive Coke’s fortunes, suggested he would stay on beyond
next year when he turns 65, the company’s informal retirement age.

“There is no set date [for retiring]. I don’t think age is a factor.
Look at the age of the people who are running today for president.
There’s a new era here. The 65 age thing is out of date.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007