Robert Woodruff, former president of the Coca-Cola Company and one of the most successful businessmen of the twentieth century, was born in Columbus, Georgia on December 6, 1889. The family moved to Atlanta so that Robert’s father, Ernest Woodruff, could run his business. Robert attended the Georgia Military Academy, then completed one year at Emory College (present-day Emory University) before dropping out to work at a foundry. He would later take sales jobs for the General Fire Extinguisher Company, Atlantic Ice Coal Company, and the White Motors, where he was later made Vice-President and General Manager.
The Coca-Cola Company, founded in 1886, was sold in 1919 to a group of Georgia investors which included Ernest Woodruff. Robert assumed control in 1923. At the time, Coca-Cola faced a terrible financial situation. A post-war recession crippled the international economy and the price of sugar, a main ingredient in Coca-Cola, soared. Just as bad for business, the temperance movement added Coca-Cola to its list of beverages that contributed to the moral decline of the nation. Conservative politicians such as Senator Tom Watson joined with the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement in condemning the soft drink as an intoxicating and addictive beverage.
After a year or so of Woodruff’s presidency, however, Coca-Cola’s fortunes began to turn around. The post-war recession gave way to one of the most remarkable economic booms in American history. New employment opportunities afforded the public with an increase in disposable income and the leisure time necessary for consumption. Coca-Cola became the perfect alternative to bootlegged alcohol during the Roaring Twenties. Woodruff took advantage of new mass-marketing techniques, such at the billboard and radio, and advertised his product as both a wholesome family beverage and as the drink for the stylish flapper.
During the Great Depression, Woodruff continued to demonstrate his talent for marketing. While other companies struggled to avoid bankruptcy, Coca-Cola flourished. The beverage was marketed as an opportunity to escape from the era’s hardships. Woodruff hired the movie stars Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Cary Grant to endorse his product as the great American soft drink. He commissioned artist Norman Rockwell to paint advertisements. In many areas of the country, particularly in the South, Coca-Cola replaced coffee as the drink over which people socialized.
As the country prepared for another world war, Coca-Cola became the undeniable symbol of American culture and patriotism. For the duration of the war, Woodruff coupled his sympathy for soldiers serving abroad with his shrewd business sense. He pledged to make Coca-Cola available for every American GI stationed anywhere in the world. For the troops, the drinks were a welcome reminder of a far-away home and a morale booster. The sight of American soldiers drinking Coca-Cola around the world was also a public relations coup for the company—citizens in every nation began to relate American popular culture and material wealth with Coca-Cola. The company, therefore, was able to greatly expand its overseas market once the war was over.
Woodruff combined his stellar business record with an equally impressive record of public service. The Coca-Cola Foundation has donated millions of dollars to support a diverse set of charities and non-profit organizations, including a $200 million grant to Emory University. Though Woodruff stepped down as the head of Coca-Cola in 1955, he remained director and chairman of the finance committee of the Board of Directors. He was active in the company until his death in 1985.