The new guy at GMCR: Does anyone else think this is a little bit strange?

Earlier this week, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters announced the hiring of a new CEO. Brian Kelley will be coming to Waterbury from Atlanta, where he’s a top executive at Coca-Cola. It would seem to be a great hire for GMCR, which faces big challenges due to the expiration of key patents on its single-brew coffeemaker. (Wall Street certainly thought so; GMCR stock rose quickly on the news.) Kelley has handled some big chores at Coke, including the development of its “still beverage” line (non-carbonated drinks) and the integration of its North American corporation with its bottling operations, which was considered a big deal. He was due to become CEO of Coca-Cola Refreshments – the current name for Coke’s North American arm – in January.  Instead, he’s up and moving to Waterbury in early December.

Having essentially given two weeks’ notice.

His sudden departure for the wilds of Vermont has prompted a rather ambivalent response from the mothership:

A Coca-Cola spokesman would not comment on whether Kelley’s sudden departure came as a surprise or whether Coca-Cola tried to keep him.

Steve Cahillane, Coca-Cola Refreshments’ current president and CEO, announced Kelley’s departure Monday in a memo to staffers. Cahillane, who soon will lead Coca-Cola Americas, said he had “mixed emotions” about Kelley’s departure and said his contributions were “important to improving our operating effectiveness and efficiencies.”

“Would not comment.” “Mixed emotions.” Huh. That might simply be the corporate self-protective instinct, not wanting to admit that Kelley’s departure is either a loss or a surprise. But, given the circumstances, it might have a deeper meaning as well.

Kelley’s transition seems odd to me in a number of ways. And frankly, I’m surprised that nobody else has asked any questions about the unusual process of his hiring.  

By top-executive standards, it’s awfully quick. Kelley’s hiring was announced on November 19. His start date is December 3. As I said above, that’s basically two weeks’ notice plus Thanksgiving. Which would be normal if you were, say, a cashier at McDonald’s; but executive transitions at major corporations are usually a matter of months, not weeks. Has there ever been such a small amount of time between the announcement of a top-executive hire and the exec’s departure from his current post?

It’s a very unusual career move. Kelley has been a top corporate exec at General Electric, Ford, SIRVA (formerly North American Van Lines), and Coke. He was about to become CEO of Coke’s North American operations; his promotion was announced in September, and would have taken effect in January. He would have headed a workforce of 68,000. GMCR employs less than 6,000. I don’t know how much he would have earned at Coke, but I’d guess it was more than what GMCR can afford to pay.

According to Fortune Magazine, it appears he is no longer considered a future head of the global corporation; that he might have just hit his own personal glass ceiling. That might prompt him to start looking around for greener pastures. But if that’s the case, you’d think he could do better than GMCR.

Out of the La-Z-Boy, into the fire. Kelley leaves one of America’s biggest companies and most established consumer brands for a small firm with an uncertain future. GMCR has grown rapidly because of its exclusive rights to the Keurig single-cup brewing system. Not any more. It’ll have to fight some very big competitors entering its market. Those environmentally-unfriendly plastic cups may well become a commodity item with much lower profit margins. And how many single-cup machines can people buy, anyway?

Maybe Kelley loves a challenge instead of a maintenance job. Maybe he likes to ski, which Atlanta is not known for. But there’s something more going on here.  

4 thoughts on “The new guy at GMCR: Does anyone else think this is a little bit strange?

  1. Maybe the whole deal is curious; or maybe Vermont really is a good place to do business and at least one 1%er has figured that out.  

  2. If he gets a pile of options and/or restricted stock, then engineers a buy-out, he’d make a lot more than he’d ever pull down at Coke.  Given his status in the industry, his negotiating leverage would have been huge.  I’m sure he’ll be just fine financially. At some point next year, they’ll have to publish his contract.  It would be worth a peek.

    Also, sometimes, it’s important to people to be the one in charge. If he can turn this company back to being star status (and engineers a big buyout) he’ll be back in the majors real fast. If not, he doesn’t have to put up with the kind of BS that large public companies face every day.  Win-win-win.

  3. for a quieter, higher quality life in our beautiful state. Not everyone is driven solely by the rapid accretion of greenbacks. I imagine he’s got plenty socked away, which will provide a fine standard of living, even if he never works again.

    Of course, he could have a vision for GMCR that will make us wish he never left Georgia. It’s not like Coca-cola has been the best steward of the increasingly threatened water supply in the greater-Atlanta area.

    We’ll find out, I guess…

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