Heyer set to succeed Daft as Coca-Cola chief

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The Independent Online

Coca-Cola's chief operating officer, Steve Heyer, moved into pole position to take the helm of the iconic drinks company, after the chairman and chief executive, Douglas Daft, unexpectedly signalled his intention to retire early at the end of this year.

Mr Daft's decision brings down the curtain on four years in the top job, during which he has been heavily criticised for strategic muddle and poor financial performance, while the company itself is being investigated by regulators over allegations of widespread fraud.

The company said late on Thursday that it would throw open its search for a replacement to external candidates, but Mr Heyer, 50, who joined the group three years ago from Turner Broadcasting System, the television arm of Time Warner, was being widely seen as a shoo-in. He was the only executive named by Coke as a candidate.

Marc Greenberg, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said: "Mr Heyer is the senior operator credited with many recent successes ... He represents the obvious choice to run Coke. We expect he will be named and see the board's formation of a search process as properly discharging its fiduciary duties to shareholders."

Mr Daft, 60, has spent 30 years at Coke and took over as chairman in 2000. He said he had always intended to retire after five years. "Over the past four years, we have accomplished a great deal. Today, our brands are stronger and our global production and marketing system has been restored to health."

Coke's share price has gone nowhere since Mr Daft took the helm. Despite a restructuring - which cost thousands of jobs - designed to decentralise the organisation, earnings were again falling at the end of last year. Sales growth averaging 2.3 per cent a year under Mr Daft compares with 3.8 per cent for its arch-rival Pepsi and more than 8 per cent for Coke in the Nineties.

The Securities & Exchange Commission has been investigating the company since last year after a whistleblower alleged widespread fraud to manipulate earnings figures.