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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 70-84

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A Letter to Roberto

Michael Novak

The following letter is entirely fictional. I never engaged in such a correspondence with any business leader. Still, if I had been asked such questions, this is how I would have responded. (In various writings, I've made similar points.) Just the same, I would like to dedicate this letter to Mr. Roberto Goizueta, former president and CEO of Coca-Cola Corporation, a fine Catholic (whose son Roberto Jr. has become a prominent theologian), and one of the most admired corporate leaders in recent American history.

Just before his untimely death in 1997, Mr. Goizueta invited me to spend a private hour with him, before taking questions from his top executives over lunch. He was an early fan of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Business as a Calling. This was our only contact.

Under Goizueta's leadership (1981-1997), the value of Coca-Cola stock multiplied many times over from $4.3 billion to $180 billion (3500 percent). Seldom has one company increased its value in such a steady way over so long a period of [End Page 70] years. This success yielded a significant growth to the many universities, museums, charities, pension funds, and other institutions of civil society that have invested their resources in Coca-Cola stock, especially those in the Atlanta area.

Coca-Cola is one of the most far-flung of all corporations; it is almost as multinational as the Catholic Church. Every day people around the world drink more than one billion Coke products. Roberto was fond of saying, of course, that at least four billion people have never yet drunk a Coca-Cola product. The company, he said, had much yet to do.

March 4, 2000

Dear Roberto:

In your last e-mail you raise several questions. Let me reply to them one at a time.

1. The first thing you pick up is my passing comment that Coca-Cola should establish a major facility in Bangladesh. Let me lay out the case.

I know the government of Bangladesh has been unpredictable. During the Cold War, the Russians put a full-court press on Bangladesh. They brought Bangladeshi by the hundreds to study in Moscow. They understood the strategic maxim, "the key to Southeast Asia is Dhaka." Looking at a map of the Bay of Bengal may not give you the full picture, but if you draw lines from Dhaka in every direction, you will see what a central hub it is. And the climate there, while tempestuous and often extremely unpleasant to those accustomed to the temperate zone, is spectacular for plants; sun and water abound. Crops grow almost year-round.

Bangladesh would be a fantastic center for an industry specializing in tropical fruits and juices. That is my proposal for Coke: Experiment [End Page 71] a little, and become the world's major bottler of fruit juices, especially for Southeast Asia, India, China and Japan. There are more human beings in the circle whose center is Bangladesh than in any similar circle in the world. Nutritious fruit juices would benefit almost two billion people in the region. What a market! What a lot of good could be done by a successful local industry.

But there are other motives in my mind, too. You are as committed to democracy and capitalism as I am. Like me, you agree that capitalism is mainly about creativity in practice--and reinventing Coca-Cola-Asia as a tropical juice giant, for a great new region, you have to admit, is a challenging idea. (I don't mean to ignore your classic brands, only to add a new dimension to them.)

What I want to see in the mid-twenty-first century is a world of democracies in which individual rights are respected, and the one-third of the human population still unliberated from poverty finally blast through that wall and pour into the middle class. Roberto, that will only be done through institutions, and my conviction is...


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