After high school, Isdell headed to South Africa to attend the University of Cape Town, where he received a degree in Social Science and qualified to become a social worker. During that time he gained practical experience working with local communities. Repulsed by the inequality he encountered there, he ran for student council on an anti-apartheid agenda—and won.
Isdell ultimately decided to pursue a career in business instead of social work, but he carried his burgeoning sense of civic responsibility with him into the private sector, starting with his first job at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kitwe, the second-largest city in Zambia.
His boss at the company, a man named Maurice Gersh, was both owner of the plant and mayor of the city, and that dual role left a lasting impression on Isdell. As Coca-Cola bottler and mayor, Gersh worked hard to make the company an integral part of the community. In subsequent years, that relationship between companies and the people they serve became a touchstone of Isdell’s business philosophy. He had grown up on a continent where many people lacked clean water, shelter, or food. Increasingly he asked himself how a business could thrive in the long term when its customers and employees were struggling to meet basic needs.
“I saw that companies could be and should be concerned about the world that they live in,” says Isdell. “If you’re going to solve any major problem—whether it’s social injustice or environmental degradation—you need all three parts of the triangle: civil society, government, and business.”
After several years of progressive promotions in Zambia and South Africa, Isdell left Africa and quickly worked his way up the corporate ladder. He began as Coca-Cola’s regional manager in Australia before transferring to the Philippines, where he took the company’s operations there from being outsold two-to-one by Pepsi to outselling their chief competitor by an equal margin. Next, he became head of Coca-Cola in Central Europe, and then transferred to the global headquarters in Atlanta to become group president for 79 countries from Eastern and Northern Europe to the Soviet Union, Africa, and the Middle East. In the 1990s, he helped navigate the company from the fall of the Berlin Wall to market leadership in all former Communist countries, earning him the moniker “Coke’s Indiana Jones” from the Wall Street Journal. He ultimately retired to Barbados at the age of 58.
In all that time, Isdell never forgot Maurice Gersh. Deep down, he still harbored the desire to show what a leader like Gersh could accomplish—for business, communities, and nature—if he had the resources and influence of a modern-day executive at his disposal. He got his chance in 2004, when The Coca-Cola Company invited him to return as Chairman and CEO.