It's a packed house on this February morning at the Terry Executive Education Center in Buckhead and people are being turned away at the door. Terry Third Thursday has become an SRO event, and TTT task force co-chairman Cecil Cox is at the podium introducing Coca-Cola senior vice president Jerry Wilson (AB '78), who is the reason for the heavy turnout. Decked out in a charcoal-gray suit and burgundy tie, the 21-year Coke veteran looks none the worse for wear despite having logged more than 300,000 air miles in 2007 alone. When you carry a title like President of Coca-Cola's McDonald's Division, you go where the action is. A polished speaker, Wilson doesn't take long to connect with his audience. Delivering vignettes filled with pop culture references that tie neatly back to marketing strategies outlined in his book, Managing Brand You, the hour-long presentation has the room abuzz when he's finished.
A decade of responsibility for developing Coca-Cola's alliance strategy is pretty heady stuff — particularly when you consider that Wilson's turf was 31,000 restaurants that served 58 million customers in 118 countries every day. But it's Wilson's everyman approach that makes him a star. Colleagues say he understands the customer better than anyone at The Coca-Cola Company, and the board of directors obviously feels likewise, having promoted Wilson to chief customer and commercial officer shortly after his February TTT presentation. "It's quite an honor," says Wilson, who will be working closely with Coke's bottling partners around the world to commercialize consumer strategies with large retailers and local customers. "I have developed those skills at partnership and alliance, creating a mutual agenda between Coke and McDonald's, and I am now carrying that forward with a much broader palette. Every customer is important. Whether it is a global customer, a regional customer, or a local customer, they are all critical to our success."
Wilson is admired at Coca-Cola for his intellect and insight, yet he's anything but a traditional, linear-thinking, process-driven manager. Steven Simmons, Wilson's vice president of global finance in the McDonald's division, says it took him awhile to get used to Wilson's unconventional methods.
"He had the type of diverse management teams where I thought, Wow, I wouldn't have put that group together," says Simmons. "But some wonderful results came from it. After the first couple of times, I stopped doubting Jerry's creative genius and just let it flow." Wilson credits his UGA days in the late 1970s with helping to create his intuitive, collaborative, and creative way of doing things.