The 7th Annual Wall Street 50: The Thief of Time

From Right: Don Keough with his son, Michael.

By Niall O'Dowd, Contributor
August / September 2006

Time catches up with everybody, but not Don Keough it seems. At a stage of life, 77, when most people are catching the senior specials at McDonald’s or watching the sunset from a rocking chair over the Florida coast, Don Keough is as hard-charging and successful as ever.

Warren Buffett suspects that his friend from their Omaha days half a century ago has a nuclear reactor for a heart and says he still hangs around with Keough because he is one of the few people in life who move him up. He recently appointed Keough to the board of Berkshire Hathaway because he is the most trusted pair of hands Buffett knows in the business world, a man he would trust with his life.

Buffett also insisted that Keough rejoin the board of Coca-Cola when the company hit troubled waters.

“Don Keough introduces you to his world and people respond to that; it is very unique. When you are around him, you are learning something all the time. Like all top businessmen, he is functioning at a very high level. It is like watching Ted Williams swing a baseball bat — if you watch it long enough, you will learn how to swing better yourself,” Buffett said in an exclusive interview with Irish America.

Buffett’s opinion is shared by many other giants of American business. Keough has carved out a unique niche as the elder statesman of American business, a man of absolute integrity whom the rich and powerful turn to for advice.

It is easy to see why he is considered such a powerhouse. As President and Chief Operating Officer of Coca-Cola, he and Chief Executive Roberto Goizueta oversaw the growth of the company from a $4 billion evaluation when they took over in March 1981 to over $80 billion when their reign ended. It was the most successful tenure in the history of the world’s most famous franchise.

Keough was not done, however. Soon after retirement, he took over as Chairman of the New York investment bank Allen and Company and has helped put together some of the biggest deals of the past decade.

Not bad for a farm boy from Maurice, Iowa, whose family farm was burned down when he was just two years of age and the family had to start all over again in nearby Sioux City.

Not that the Keoughs were unused to hard times. His great-grandfather had sailed from Wexford to escape the Irish famine. His grandfather was an Iowa pioneer, eking out an existence for him and his family from the unyielding plains. So nothing ever came easy to the Keoughs.

From such unpromising beginnings, Don Keough rose through the business world to the very pinnacle of the most famous company on earth. It was a Horatio Alger type rise, one that defies comparison in this modern era. Through it all he has maintained the kind of business discipline and foresight, sunny disposition and optimistic outlook that mark him as a true original.

And he is far from finished. This year he was in the headlines again, including several front-page articles in the Wall Street Journal and a cover story in Fortune magazine as he managed the search for the next Chief Executive of Coca-Cola.

Needless to say, he got his man in the end and the company looks poised for new growth and direction. As with everything else he gets involved in, Don Keough was a steady hand on the tiller and a cool head in a crisis. We are delighted he has agreed to be our keynote speaker for our 2004 Wall Street 50. ♦

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