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Review: From the Jim Crow South to the end of apartheid, Carl Ware’s rise as Coke’s daring diplomat

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Portrait of an American Businessman

"Portrait of An American Businessman: One Generation from Cotton Fields to Boardroom," by Carl Ware with Sidney Fleming, Mercer University Press. Provided

PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN BUSINESSMAN: One Generation From Cotton Fields to Boardroom. By Carl Ware, with Sibley Fleming. Mercer University Press. 336 pages. $29.

“Carl does not only understand Ubuntu, the African philosophy of humaneness, he lives it and applied it to the corporate, educational, social, political, and religious environment in which he played decision-making roles.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the foreword

In his 2002 memoir “My Losing Season,” the late Pat Conroy self-effacingly mused, “I was born to be a point guard, just not a very good one.” Carl Ware, retired Coca-Cola Co. executive and founder of the Coca-Cola Foundation, was once a point guard, too, on his high school basketball team. And, like Conroy, Ware learned to excel at the point guard’s primary role, setting up others for their successes.

Ware’s recently published memoir, “Portrait of an American Businessman,” chronicles lifelong commitment to education and service, and his inspirational rise from young sharecropper in the cotton fields of Jim Crow-era Coweta County, Ga., to the highest ranking African American on Coca-Cola’s leadership team and the “daring diplomat” of the company’s anti-apartheid policies and practices in South Africa.

Ware was the first American businessman to meet with a newly freed Nelson Mandela in 1990, and he counts Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who provides the memoir’s foreword) among his friends and mentors — a catalog of connections that also includes Warren Buffett and the late Coca-Cola president and philanthropist Robert W. Woodruff.

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Instilled by his parents with empowering values of hard work, preparedness, faith and humility, Ware participated in the student civil rights movement in Atlanta and, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, later became the first African-American president of the Atlanta City Council in 1973. His candid recollections of the shifting landscape of political power in Atlanta offer insightful portraits of city and community leaders and accounts of evolving attitudes about inclusion and exclusion in politics and business.

In Coca-Cola’s corporate environment, Ware was named VP of Special Markets in 1979. In preparation for his leadership role on the global corporate stage, and at a time when Coca-Cola was beginning to assert its own culture of inclusion, Ware chose to continue his education as one of the first students in the executive management program at Georgia State and then in a newly established international senior management program at Harvard. He was an essential voice and advocate in his company’s total disinvestment in South Africa in opposition to apartheid, a bold but essential move at a time when Coke accounted for 75 percent of that country’s beverage market.

By 1991, Ware was deputy group president of Coke’s Northeast Europe and Africa group, and by 1993, the company’s first African-American group president, helming African operations. Ware retired in 2003 as head of the company’s global public affairs, but continued his leadership in international business and in his native Georgia, by creating the Carl & Mary Ware Academic Center at Clark Atlanta University, the first new academic building constructed on that campus in some 30 years.

Written with the assistance of Sibley Fleming (granddaughter and biographer of Atlanta’s famed journalist and author Celestine Sibley), Ware’s memoir offers a compelling case study in responsible civic and corporate leadership, and of the positive difference one individual can make in the course of a lifetime spent in service to others.

Reviewer Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and coeditor with Nicole Seitz of “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy.”

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