Robert W. Woodruff

Robert Winship Woodruff was a remarkable businessman and philanthropist. He became president of The Coca-Cola Company in 1923 and guided it until his death in 1985, helping to shape the company from a local soft drink business into the world’s best-known brand.

Mr. Woodruff was not only dedicated to The Coca-Cola Company, but also to his business associates, friends and community. He remembered hundreds of friends’ birthdays each year with the gift of a rose in a Coca-Cola bottle, and his life is filled with stories of large and small acts of generosity.

In civic life, Mr. Woodruff preferred to remain in the background, making anonymous gifts that greatly enriched his hometown of Atlanta. His philanthropy focused on transforming the small, bustling railroad town into a world-class city, and he made significant gifts to Atlanta’s health, education and cultural institutions.

Whatever the gift, Mr. Woodruff believed in giving quietly. On his desk sat a quote embodying his life’s creed: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
  • 1889

    Robert Winship Woodruff is born to Ernest and Emily Woodruff. Ernest is a skilled businessman and demanding father who leads the Trust Company of Georgia, the predecessor to SunTrust Bank. Robert grows up in Atlanta, with dreams of becoming either a big game guide in the West like his hero, Buffalo Bill, or a successful businessman who would “make a million dollars.”

  • 1905 - 1909

    In 1905 Mr. Woodruff begins attending Georgia Military Academy, which he later claims as “the only place from which I ever graduated.” Ernest enrolls him in Emory University in 1908, but Robert is an indifferent student. He is dismissed after one semester and takes his first job at the General Pipe and Foundry Company, where he shovels sand for 60 cents a day. Decades later, Emory dedicates its library to Robert W. Woodruff with the statement, “Mr. Woodruff entered business before his formal graduation from Emory.”

  • 1912

    Mr. Woodruff marries Nell Kendall Hodgson of Athens, which he later calls “the most satisfying moment of my life.” Nell is keenly interested in nursing and serves as a nurse’s aide during WWI. She is also an ardent supporter of Emory’s School of Nursing and its students. Emory later names the school Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing in her honor.

  • 1919

    Ernest Woodruff leads a syndicate of businessmen to buy The Coca-Cola Company for $25 million. Stock is sold for $40 a share. Son Robert is among the investors.

  • 1921

    Mr. Woodruff is promoted to vice president and general sales manager of White Motor Company, where he started out selling trucks just a few years earlier. He has his first transaction with The Coca-Cola Company in the same year, selling it 30 trucks for the growing business.

  • 1923

    Coca-Cola’s board offers 33-year-old Mr. Woodruff the job of president. The company is struggling – it owes millions of dollars and its stock has plummeted to $18 a share. Mr. Woodruff agrees to the job despite a steep pay cut, explaining, “I figured that if I ever brought the price of stock back to what I had paid for it, I’d sell and get even. Then I’d go back to selling cars and trucks.”

  • 1928

    An avid outdoorsman, Mr. Woodruff purchases a tract of land in southwest Georgia as a quail hunting reserve with friend and former boss Walter White. They name it Ichauway. The Woodruffs visit Ichauway often to rest, relax and entertain friends. Upon Mr. Woodruff’s death years later, Ichauway becomes the property of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. In his will, Mr. Woodruff expresses the wish that Ichauway be maintained as a natural preserve. After seeking counsel from scientists and naturalists, the Foundation’s trustees establish the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in 1991.

  • 1930s

    Mr. Woodruff presides over the growth of The Coca-Cola Company, which flourishes under his visionary leadership and high standards for quality and service. The company weathers the Great Depression with rising profits every year, since “everyone has a nickel” to spend on a Coke. By the late 1930s, Coca-Cola is a household name and bottling plants are operating in 44 countries.

  • 1937

    Mr. Woodruff establishes the Trebor Foundation (“Trebor” is Robert spelled backwards) to carry out his philanthropy. He gives a generous gift to establish a cancer center at Emory University Hospital in honor of his mother Emily Winship Woodruff, who loses her battle to cancer this year. The center becomes the Winship Cancer Institute.

  • 1955

    Mr. Woodruff officially retires from The Coca-Cola Company, but remains as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors. He guides and advises Coca-Cola’s officers, effectively maintaining control over the company’s affairs. Mr. Woodruff later handpicks The Coca-Cola Company’s next generation of leaders: Roberto C. Goizueta, Chairman; Donald R. Keough, COO; and John K. Collings, Jr., CFO.

  • 1960s - 1970s

    Mr. Woodruff continues to be an active philanthropist. In 1966 Emory University establishes what will later be known as the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center. The Memorial Arts Center is dedicated in 1967, with Atlanta’s “anonymous donor” contributing half the cost of construction (the center becomes part of the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982). In 1979, Mr. Woodruff and his brother George donate the $105 million corpus of the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Fund to Emory University. It is the largest gift ever made to a U.S. educational institution at the time.

  • 1985

    After a full and storied life, Mr. Woodruff is laid to rest in Westview Cemetery. His own estimation of his life can be summed up by the words of a plaque he displayed prominently in his bedroom: “When I compare the things I’ve lost with the things I’ve gained, the things I’ve missed with what I might have attained, there is little room left for pride.”