FROM ULSTER TO AFRICA
I was born in Downpatrick, a small town in Northern Ireland, on June 8, 1943, the only son of Protestant parents. My mother’s family was originally from Scotland, my father’s from Ireland.
My father, Edward Neville Isdell, was a fingerprint and ballistics specialist with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Belfast was a shipbuilding hub and therefore a frequent bombing target in World War II. The police headquarters were moved to the countryside about twenty miles away until the war was over, so it was in Downpatrick where I first saw the light of day.
I was christened in a little stone church in Downpatrick built on the site of St. Patrick’s first church in Ireland. My daughter and grandson would later be christened there as well.
Northern Ireland was then and is still part of the United Kingdom, but has a large Catholic population loyal to Ireland. The friction between Protestants and Catholics was palpable even to me at an early age. There were Protestant neighborhoods and Catholic neighborhoods as well as Protestant schools and Catholic schools.
My grandfather was a member of the Orange Order, a fraternity dedicated to Protestant supremacy, and every year he celebrated the Battle of the Boyne, when the army of William of Orange defeated the Catholic king, James II. My father, who maintained close ties to Ireland throughout his life, refused to join the order. He had the somewhat dangerous view, which I inherited, that Ireland should be one country but only through democratic means. The “troubles” as they were called were subdued in those days and would not resurface for two decades. Yet I would encounter these types of human conflicts for the rest of my life. The ability to understand them and get past them was a key business skill that served me well throughout my career at Coca-Cola.
My childhood in Northern Ireland was a typical one, solidly middle class, with a large and loving extended family close by. My paternal grandfather was a postal clerk. My mother’s father was a shipbuilding engineer honored by King George V for his service to British shipbuilding. I remember clearly when a Nigerian policeman came over for ten days of training and stayed at our house. At that time a black man in Northern Ireland was really unusual. The officer gave me a fluffy little toy that I called Calabar for the city in Nigeria where he lived. It was my favorite and my first link to Africa. I also remember tasting my first Coca-Cola in Northern Ireland, at an old tea shop with bullion windows. It was considered an exotic drink!
During those postwar years there were still Jewish refugees from the Holocaust living in refugee camps, and I donated some of my toys to the children there. Gasoline and other products were still being rationed and on weekends we sometimes drove to the Republic of Ireland, which had been neutral in World War II, to buy items hard to find in Belfast.
My father was a tall, barrel-chested man who had tried on three occasions to leave Northern Ireland, but had been prevented from doing so because he was deemed “essential” at the police department. Positions in Greece, British Guiana, and Sierra Leone passed him by.
Unable to get out of Northern Ireland, my father channeled his excess energy into rugby, a tough, hard game, with kicking, passing, and tackling, but no helmets or pads. It’s often said that soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. My father was the president of a rugby club and my uncle was also involved. So I spent many weekends with my cousins at rugby matches, kicking the ball around on the sidelines during the games.
After serving twenty-five years with the police department, my father retired on half pension and took a position in what is now called Zambia—then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia—as head of the fingerprint department of the Northern Rhodesia police. This was 1954. I was ten years old.
Finally my father had the opportunity to live abroad, but relatives and neighbors in Belfast were baffled at our move. I’ll never forget sitting as a ten-year-old does in the corner of the room, as the adults, who forget you are there, talk. One of the family members said, “What are you doing this for? What about Neville?” My father replied, “I believe that by doing this I will be able to afford to give him a university education. I am doing this for him. I want him to have more opportunities than I had.” That stuck in my mind. My parents were aspiring for me. They were investing in me. They’d been through a war and they’d lost opportunities as a result. The big possibilities had passed them by.
I was excited by the move, having always been interested in geography and nature, collecting leaves and pressing them in books, poring over atlases to learn the names of countries. Although my father had wanted to leave Northern Ireland all along, my mother, Margaret, was not at all eager to go. She was a very good mother and doted on me, but throughout my childhood she was never a very well woman, suffering from bronchial asthma.
On the journey to Africa, I saw London for the first time. En route to Africa, the ship stopped in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria off the coast of Spain. Flamenco dancers came aboard. There was bright sunshine and beaches. The exotic nature of it all hit me. We were not even in Africa yet but we were in an entirely different world.
Our first stop in Africa was Lobito Bay in Portuguese West Africa, now called Angola. There, I experienced the harshness of the colonial system as white overseers lashed black dockworkers with hide whips. My father pulled me away and said, “I’m sorry you had to see this, but this is the way the world is. And it shouldn’t be like this.” To this day, that horrific scene is etched in my memory.
Our next port of call was Cape Town, South Africa. We were told that if we were up at 5:00 A.M., we would see the most wonderful sight. It was January, summer in South Africa, and my father and I were up on deck. All of a sudden, through the early morning mist, a piece of wondrous land emerged from the seemingly flat sea. It was Table Mountain. The order of magnitude was stunning. Ireland had its beautiful green hills but here was a nearly four-thousand-foot mountain jutting out of the sea. It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. I fell in love with Cape Town, in my estimation, one of the three most beautiful cities in the world. The other two are Sydney and Rio de Janeiro.
During our four days in Cape Town, we feasted on the sunlight, juicy grapes, oranges, and melon pieces with dollops of ice cream in the center that we purchased from cafés. I also saw the first signs of apartheid: whites-only signs on park benches. It was a shock, but at the same time, it seemed to be the natural order of this society. It didn’t seem right to me, but I did not suddenly become a ten-year-old activist. I must say that I accepted it, but it did make me uncomfortable. After all, the Nigerian police officer had stayed at our house two years earlier. Why had he been able to stay with a white family when black South Africans weren’t even allowed to sit on a white’s park bench?
After Cape Town, we traveled for three-and-a half days on a coal-fired train to Northern Rhodesia. I stood on the metal railing between the cars for hours, looking at the varied landscapes including the bleak semidesert of Botswana, peddlers selling their wares, and women breast-feeding their babies. We passed one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls, which straddles Southern and Northern Rhodesia. Part of the great Zambezi River, the falls are a mile and a quarter wide and drop 365 feet to the gorge below. The spray can be seen for miles, which is why in the local language the falls are called Mosi-o-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders). Everything in Africa, it seemed, had a totally different order of magnitude.
In Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, we were met at the train station by my father’s former fingerprinting colleague in Great Britain, Paddy Greene, and his new wife. My father was replacing Greene as head of fingerprinting at the Northern Rhodesian police force. Even though Lusaka was the capital city, the train station had no platform, just red earth.
Our family moved into a brand-new three-bedroom government house in Lusaka. With its beautiful shiny concrete floors, the house sat on a half-acre lot that backed up to the bush. For the first time, our family had servants. And they would wax the floors with brushes on their feet and I’d slide delightedly across the rooms as a young boy would.
During the first nine months, we had no electricity, only candles, Tilley lamps, and a wood-fired stove. However, for a young child, Africa was an explosion of new sights and sounds: frogs, crickets, spiders, and loud thunderstorms. I was soon thriving in Africa, riding a bicycle five miles each way to a government school with a British curriculum, sleeping under a mosquito net, and playing sports.
Schools were segregated by race and gender. Racial segregation overall in Northern Rhodesia was not as strict as it was in South Africa but cafés, restaurants, and bars were whites-only. Whites and blacks could shop in the same retail stores, though the blacks tended to shop in different stores because the residential areas were separate. Many of the shop owners were immigrants from India.
Lusaka had a local newspaper and only one cinema, where we’d go on Saturday mornings for movies. There was no television. At night we’d listen to BBC News on the radio. On Sunday nights a radio station in Portuguese East Africa broadcasted the Top Twenty pop songs. Sporting events were available only on short-wave radio. Pocket money was used to buy the latest hits on 78-rpm vinyl discs. Within a few miles of the Lusaka city limits, the occasional lion was still to be seen.
Abject poverty prevailed. Most of the Africans in Northern Rhodesia walked around without shoes and wore ragged clothing. Yet in many ways, the poverty was not as severe then as it is today in some parts of Africa, a result of the displacement or migration of so many people from rural areas to the desperate slums of the cities.
I was amazed by the friendliness and happiness of the people in Northern Rhodesia, despite their poverty. They appeared somewhat content. It was a society that seemed to work, to be at peace with itself. Some educated Zambians, however, were becoming discontented and political rumblings for independence—which would occur in 1964—had begun. Yet even the process of gaining freedom occurred with far less disruption in Northern Rhodesia than it did in other African countries and was cheered by a number of European expats, including my family.
Many tribal languages are spoken in Northern Rhodesia, but in school Africans were taught English, and because of the tribal differences English was and still is the official language of government. My parents and I studied a little bit of Chinyanja, also known as Nyanja. We knew enough of this language to get by if we encountered anyone who did not speak English, but that only worked in a Nyanja-speaking area.
At school, I first encountered Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who over decades had developed their own language, Afrikaans. During recess, we played a rough, physical game called bok-bok in which several boys would make a human tunnel while the other team tried to collapse it by jumping on their backs.
Living in Africa, though, took its toll. I suffered from sun-stroke, dysentery, and eventually malaria. In those day there was no air-conditioning. Yet, I generally thrived in the new environment, as did my father, who loved his new job and quickly became active in the local rugby scene. More than anything, he was determined to train Africans as fingerprint specialists, something his white colleagues believed was not possible. By the time he retired from the Zambian Police Force in 1967, he handed over a department of twenty trained fingerprint specialists and his successor, his first trainee, later became deputy commissioner of police. At that time it was the only fully Zambian division of the police department.
My mother, however, with servants to do the housework and me away at school most of the time, was at first bored and homesick. She eventually took a clerical job at a government medical dispensary. She counted the days until the end of the first three-year contract, when we would return for six months of mandatory leave in Belfast.
In Africa, the entrepreneur first emerged in me. I grew maize in our garden, roasted it, and had the family gardener sell it to workers on their lunch break, with the gardener being given a commission. In many respects, he was my first employee and I could have “ordered” him to do the work. However, the concept of reward for incremental effort seemed right.
In the summer of 1957, we returned to Belfast on the leave my mother had been longing for. I was thirteen at the time and younger siblings of my friends in Belfast were greatly disappointed to see that after three years in Africa, I was not black, as they had expected.
After the first round of visiting relatives and friends I recall a dinner-table discussion between my mother and father in which my mother commented on how our family and friends had changed. I will never forget my father’s reply, “No dear, it is we who have changed and we will never be the same again.” How true.
In a sign of my growing attachment to Africa, I wrote a letter to BBC television complaining about a story on Lusaka that aired while we were back in Belfast. The show featured old footage of Lusaka, portraying the city as a dusty wasteland. “Lusaka looks much nicer than that,” I wrote the BBC. “My Dad has much better camera footage which I am sure he will lend you.”
My parents knew none of this and were shocked when the BBC invited me to appear on television, paying for my flight to London. In a June 30, 1957, broadcast entitled, “A Boy from Lusaka,” I defended my new hometown and narrated film my father had taken of Lusaka. I was honored to appear on my own program. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth, appeared just after me and introduced the International Geophysical Year, during which sixty-seven countries cooperated on scientific research. I thought I was in illustrious company as I was shown the set for the program.
Back home in Lusaka, my television appearance produced headlines and accolades from the city council. The mayor later presented me with a mounted reproduction of the city’s coat of arms and a citation signed by all the councilors which read, “Your obvious pride in Lusaka and your display of civic mindedness have been noted.”
I was in love with Africa, so much so that three years later, I decided to stay behind in Lusaka at boarding school when my parents took another six-month leave in Belfast.
I lived at the Gilbert Rennie School and under the British system was assigned a first-year student, called a “fag,” who as part of an initiation process had to fold my clothes, make my bed, and run any other errands I might have. I played rugby, cricket, tennis, and soccer. At the time, I wanted to be a geography or history teacher, although a part-time job at a grocery store during vacations and a friend whose father owned a clothing store piqued an early interest in business. I was also placed in my first real position of responsibility as a school prefect and head of my house, of which the school had four, as a way to promote internal competition.
I graduated with honors from high school and was offered a scholarship from the city of Lusaka—in part because of my defense of the city on the BBC—to attend the University of Cape Town in South Africa. My life very nearly took a much different path, however, one that would have left me with the legacy of livestock thief, not CEO of Coca-Cola.
An initiation ritual at my college residence required first-year male students to appear in their underwear early in the morning with a live animal. It was performed in full view of the women’s residence where the windows were filled with ogling females. All sorts of creatures would appear: dogs, cows, horses. It was a silly ritual but, nevertheless, a time-honored one. My friends and I spotted a few sheep in a pasture near campus and one night drove in a beat-up Pontiac to retrieve our find. The farmer had locked up the sheep for the night in a barn so we stupidly broke the lock and stuffed four of the animals into the back of the old car from which we had removed the backseat. At a stoplight, a woman who was standing there waiting to cross the road looked into the car and saw the four of us and the sheep, who were loudly complaining over their plight. Her jaw dropped at this very unusual sight and she was still looking stunned as the light turned green and we drove away.
We returned the sheep early the next morning—no harm done, we thought. However, some other students had been caught attempting to break into the zoo. The police, after apprehending them, told them they could avoid charges if they told who purloined the sheep. We honorably, therefore, owned up, without realizing we would potentially be charged with stealing the animals. Eventually, as this very serious process evolved, we learned that a judge dismissed the case. We discovered that the judge had also been forced as a first-year student to endure the same ritual at our residence and therefore understood our circumstances. Our only punishment was a letter from the vice chancellor to our parents. My father, a career police officer, was none too happy, but I had dodged a bullet indeed. The judge ended up being the doyen of the South African judicial community. I recently sat next to him at a dinner, and even though he is now in his late eighties, he remembered the incident, confirmed his role, and still found it highly amusing.
For the three years I was in residence at Cape Town University, I was a Pepsi drinker. Cape Town in those days was the one part of South Africa where Pepsi had leadership. The whole of the university was exclusive to Pepsi. Although I was a Coke drinker back home in Lusaka, this was the one time of my life when I was forcibly a Pepsi consumer. Even in those days, when I consumed a soft drink outside the university, I chose Coca-Cola, showing the importance of product availability. Cape Town today is a thriving Coca-Cola franchise, built by the Forbes family, which turned a very weak franchise into what is today probably the strongest and best-run franchise in South Arica.
In college, I played on the rugby team, having reached a height of six foot five inches. Rugby was my main sporting passion and for me a lesson in teamwork and life. Every winter we went on tour, playing all over Southern Africa, which promoted great bonding. Today when I am in Cape Town, I still meet whenever I can with my former teammates.
Sociology captured my attention and I decided to become a social worker. Qualification as a social worker required students to do practical work. For example, I was assigned to do follow-up visits in the shantytowns of Cape Town for burn patients who had been at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Friday nights were drinking nights in the shantytowns and on occasion fathers would come home, get in a fight, knock the stove or lamp over, and the child would get burned. I would go in and conduct a case study to determine if the father was abusive and if the family would be able to stay together. I did six months of this intensive, sometimes heartbreaking work.
I was elected to the student council on an antiapartheid ticket and in 1964 became the editor of the college newspaper, where I wrote editorials against the government’s efforts to get rid of the small percentage of non-white students at Cape Town University. Although the college was more than 95 percent white, government officials wanted to go further and make it 100 percent. (They never quite succeeded and today it is a vibrant multiracial college ranked 105th in the world and first in Africa.)
“The University of Cape Town was a hotbed of white opposition to apartheid,” my classmate and rugby team member, Hugh Coppen, recalled. “It was at the time the most liberal education you could get in South Africa.”
Coppen remembers South African security police sitting in the classroom of one professor, Jack Simons, waiting for him to say anything considered seditious, which he often did. On occasion he was jailed. Students would picket the jail and demand his release, recalled Coppen, the son of a white farmer from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), who now lives in San Francisco.
My views of apartheid sometimes clashed with my image as a rugby player. Rugby was the national sport of the Afrikaners and I remember once in the bar of the main stadium after a match a policeman approached me and said, “What’s wrong with you? We thought you were one of us.” He simply couldn’t understand how a rugby player, a member of the club, could oppose apartheid. “Be careful, we are watching you,” he warned. Later that year, my house was raided by the security police who were looking for seditious material. They found none, missing my copy of Mao’s Little Red Book tucked away in the back of an old bookcase.
On one issue related to apartheid, I was faced with a difficult moral dilemma. The government of South Africa had decreed that all dances on campus had to be racially segregated. The student council passed a resolution to halt dances until they could be opened to students of all races. The problem was that some of the dances were fund-raisers for a student organization, SHAWCO, that provided a health clinic, low-cost food, and other assistance for the poor in Windermere, a suburb of Cape Town. I knew through my social work that this help was desperately needed. The protest would have hurt the people we were trying to help, while we continued our privileged lifestyle. I believed we had to find other ways to protest and I was among the minority on the student council who voted against the resolution to ban all dances. I was the only member of the campus antiapartheid organization to do so. I resisted peer pressure and went against the grain, refusing to increase the suffering of those we were trying to help. I am still unsure to this day whether I was right or wrong.
It was during my college years that Zambia officially gained its independence from Great Britain. I organized a party for the Zambian students at Cape Town University. At midnight on October 24, 1964, in the ballroom of a local hotel, with the British ambassador present, we lowered the British flag and raised the Zambian flag for the first time as we sang its anthem, “Stand and Sing of Zambia, Proud and Free.” I am sure that the availability of free beer for impoverished students added to the sense of history.
Although I was training to be a social worker, I again began to experience the lure of a business career. Many of my friends at the university were from wealthy families in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Their fathers owned businesses. They lived in what seemed to me were palatial homes and arrived at school driving brand-new cars. I didn’t have a car. I was now mixing with a different group of people. I felt a level of inferiority, sometimes a level of resentment at the financial differences, but more than anything, aspiration. I was a policeman’s son, but I felt like I could one day reach the same financial status of my classmates and their families.
In order to earn some extra entertainment money in college, I worked on Saturday mornings at a local clothing store. I was hired not because of any knowledge of clothing but because I was a minor rugby star. The University of Cape Town had many rugby teams, with different levels of competition. In 1964, I had reached a second-league team, but progression to the first league seemed unlikely that year since there were two players firmly entrenched on that team in the position I played at the time, lock forward. In my junior year, I was offered a spot on a first-league club, if I would leave the university team. The other team was not very good but it was in the first league. My father advised against it. “I don’t think there is any point in being a first-league player with an inferior club,” he said. “You know my dictum to you, ‘Always strive to be the best.’” That was a lesson for life. It made it easier over the years to turn down job offers without even thinking about it from companies that were not of the stature of the Coca-Cola Company. My father was certainly the most influential person in my life.
After taking his advice and staying with the university team, and making the first team weeks later, I was chosen in 1965 for a team of players drawn from South African universities for a match against Argentina. This was a taste of true first-class rugby.
After graduation from college that year, I landed a job as a manager trainee at Edgar’s Stores in Johannesburg and ran a retail store for about six months before an offer arrived from a Coca-Cola bottler in Zambia. It was owned by Maurice Gersh, a Lithuanian Jew who had fled to Africa to escape the Holocaust, walking part of the way barefoot to Kitwe, Zambia’s second-largest city, and starting a business empire from scratch. At one time Mr. Gersh was the mayor of Kitwe, a fact I have always remembered fondly while discussing the close relationship I believe companies should have with the communities they serve. I had dated Gersh’s daughter, Rayna, one of my early, great loves, in college but our relationship waned when her older brother married a Christian, sparking a family uproar. She later married a Jewish doctor. Rayna’s brother, Bernard, is one of the world’s leading cardiologists at the Mayo Clinic and remains a good friend. I had originally turned down a job offer from Mr. Gersh while I was dating Rayna, but now the way was clear and not conflicted.
I arrived back in Zambia two years after the country had gained complete independence from Great Britain. Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, was both a socialist and a humanist. He led a nonviolent independence movement that never targeted whites as individuals, but did blow up rail lines and power stations to create disruption.
Kaunda tried very hard not to be polarizing on race. He was all about the human being. In 1959, when I was sixteen, my geography master invited Kaunda, who had just been released from jail, to our school in Lusaka, and we had lunch with him. I expected a firebrand. Yet Kaunda was calm and balanced. I remember asking him, “Why aren’t you mad at us? We’ve had you in jail.” I can’t remember his exact words, but basically his reply was that we, the whites, were the ones who were making the mistake, right was on his side, and there was no reason for him to be angry. He believed that he would not be living up to his principles if he were influenced by the anger of the whites who had imprisoned him. Retribution was against his principles.
My father also knew Kaunda, who as president of Zambia was named honorary head of the Irish Society and attended the St. Patrick’s night ball every year, which my father organized as head of the society.
I was always sympathetic with Kaunda’s movement, but there were periods of uncertainty during the years preceding independence. White neighborhoods established security patrols. My father would be on watch at night, patrolling just to be sure everything was safe and secure.
After independence in 1964, Kaunda nationalized many of the industries in Zambia, including the lucrative copper mines, but, fortunately for me, not the soft drink business. It was the beginning of the failed and often destructive era of African socialism led by well-meaning leaders, but later exploited by the less idealistic, often for their own benefit.
Under Kaunda, the retail business was reserved for Zambian citizens, but permanent residents, mostly whites who had lived in the country for ten years or more, were allowed to own wholesale businesses, a system that still exists today.
My first job was as manager trainee at a two-truck depot in a small copper-mining town called Mufulira. Cokes were sold to supermarkets, bars, and restaurants. My salary was $1,100 a year.
Noting that one of the two trucks was often idle because there was only one salesman on the staff, I asked my superiors if the company would hire another salesman. They wouldn’t, so I offered to get my commercial driver’s license and was soon driving a ten-ton truck, “throwing cases” on every stop and adding new Coke customers. I doubled sales within a year. A fringe benefit of the physical labor was that I kept fit for rugby, and I was soon playing for the Zambian team.
At that time in Zambia fuel was being rationed, a side effect of Britain’s economic blockade of Rhodesia, which had announced a “Universal Declaration of Independence” (UDI) in 1965 in order to preserve white rule. In retaliation for the embargo, Rhodesia stopped rail shipments of oil and other supplies from ports in Mozambique to the newly independent Zambia, a British ally, and a base for the South African National Congress, which was opposing apartheid in South Africa.
In order to get enough fuel for our two delivery trucks, I’d drive twice a week to the Congo border on dirt roads in the dead of night with cash to pick up diesel fuel in forty-four-gallon drums, an activity that was technically illegal but kept the Coke depot running.
The hard work paid off and I was soon placed in charge of an eight-truck depot in Kitwe and rewarded with a one hundred dollar cash bonus, nearly one full-month’s salary.
Trying to expand the Zambian Coke market necessitated amazing and treacherous jaunts on the road nicknamed the “Hell Run,” which connects Zambia to Tanzania and the Port of Dar es Salaam. With the border to Rhodesia closed because of the UDI, the Hell Run was now a main truck route. Small grocery stores and restaurants popped up for the truckers. Coke products were provided by itinerate vendors. I was assigned along with a Zambian coworker, Sandy Mwila, to survey the road to determine if we should launch our own distribution system. So one morning we set out in a Datsun van, with two sand-filled sugar sacks to stabilize the rear of the vehicle, for the trip to the Tanzanian border some three hundred miles away.
In 1966, Time magazine described the Hell Run as “the world’s worst international highway” featuring dizzying, hairpin turns, treacherous sand, and mud. My wife has always accused me of driving faster on dirt roads than on paved roads, and there is logic to this. Driving fast on a dirt road means you literally fly over many of the ruts and corrugations.
The Hell Run was in such bad shape that driving fast became even more hazardous. Before the border to Rhodesia was closed, this road was little used. Almost overnight, it became overwhelmed with truck traffic. With the continual transit of the trucks, drivers often found themselves heading almost blind into the dust created on the road during dry season. At least it wasn’t muddy!
Sandy let me do most of the driving and I must admit that as a passenger, I would have been petrified at the speeds I was attaining. Yet youth is blind to risk and I probably took too many, but fortunately suffered no consequences.
About 125 miles from the Tanzanian border we stopped for the night in a small town called Mpika. Arriving hot, sweaty, and tired, we checked in at the Crested Crane Hotel and found that that there was only one room available, even though we had booked two. And, there was only one bed! It was what you could call a queen-sized bed, but had been much used and was distinctly concave, sunken in the middle much like the inside of a bowl. This meant that if Sandy, who was a rather large man, and I were to share the bed, we would migrate toward the center with great rapidity. We asked if there was a mattress that we could put on the dirty concrete floor, but there was none. So we decided we were probably better off sleeping in very close proximity to each other for the night. Exhaustion is a wonderful thing because when we eventually got into bed I don’t think either of us moved until the next morning.
The food was not much better than the sleeping arrangements. Before retiring for the evening, we went to the hotel bar for a Zambian beer and what we trusted would be a good dinner. The menu was rather limited and we both ordered steak and chips (French fries). The steak arrived looking rather gray and leaden on the plate. Our attempts to cut it proved extremely difficult, not because of the lack of sharpness of the knife but because of the leathery nature of the meat. Each of us managed to detach one corner. The battle with our teeth to make the meat digestible resulted in neither of us returning to our steaks for nutrition. Instead, beer and bread filled our bellies.
The next morning we decided to take another risk by ordering steak, eggs, and chips—very soggy chips!—in the belief that the steak in the morning couldn’t be nearly as bad as the steak the night before. Yet when the steak arrived it looked familiar … the corners were missing. The eggs and chips, however, were nutritious enough.
Back on the road, we took a thirty-mile detour off the Hell Run to visit the memorial near Kasanka where the heart of explorer David Livingstone was buried, the rest of his body having been shipped back to Westminster Abbey in London. We also toured the sprawling estate, Shiwa Ng’andu (Lake of Crocodiles), built in 1914 by an English aristocrat, Stewart Gore-Browne. You can image our surprise coming across, in the middle of the African bush, this magnificent English estate with well-manicured gardens, a chapel, a huge house complete with beautiful teak dining room table, silver candelabras, and a library stocked with leather-bound literary classics. Gore-Browne, a member of the Northern Rhodesian parliament, endorsed independence in the early 1960s, causing a huge stir in British diplomatic circles. In the final years of his life, he pushed the British government to move quickly toward majority rule.
It was in Zambia that I learned firsthand about the often adversarial relationship between Coca-Cola bottlers and the parent company.
The manager of the bottling plant in Kitwe was Charles Hutchins, and he was really tough. When he lectured employees, Hutch, as he was called, would make us all stand up on our chairs. Imagine me, at six foot five, standing on a chair. That was his management style. He was a bully, and while it was effective in the short term, it was not a style I chose to emulate.
Hutch didn’t like the Coca-Cola Company. Once, Coke sent in a newly appointed rep, Lionel Cork. Before Cork arrived for his first meeting with Hutch in Kitwe, Hutch told me, “I want you to come watch this.” When Cork arrived, Hutch was sitting behind his desk, with me standing beside him. There were no other chairs in the office, so Cork had to stand, a clear message as to who was the boss.
As the company rep, Cork’s job was to help the bottlers increase sales. However, help from the front office is not always seen as help on the receiving end. Rather than escort Cork personally through the Kitwe marketplace, Hutch told him, “There’s a truck outside, help yourself.” So Cork rode in the truck for three days, inspecting the local stores. It was a game. Customers were giving Hutch feedback about Cork, and Cork was getting a reading from the customers and the market. When Cork returned to say good-bye to Hutch at the end of the inspection, there was a chair waiting for him. The relationship had been cemented, on Hutch’s terms, although in many respects, Cork had won. Later when he worked for me, Cork reflected on the experience: “There are many ways to skin a cat.”
When Maurice Gersh hired me, the idea was that in a few years I would run the franchise. From day one my immediate boss, the sales manager—a rough and difficult man—resented me as a privileged upstart and was hard on me whenever he could be, even though he himself knew he would never aspire to hold another position. These are not easy situations but if you shine, you can always get through them.
In the spring of 1968, Gersh called me into his office and said, “Neville, I don’t think this is right for you.” I thought I was about to be fired. Yet Gersh continued, “I don’t think this is big enough for you. I believe you can have a global career with the Coca-Cola Company.” I was stunned. Only twenty-four years old, I had no serious expectations at the time beyond running the Kitwe bottler, which would have been a great life. This was not the last time in my career when other people saw more in me than I saw in myself.
The head of Coca-Cola in Africa, an American named Al Killeen, who had a passion for developing young management, was scheduled to visit the next day and Gersh had arranged for me to meet him. Killeen offered me a job with the other large bottler in Zambia, this one owned by the Coca-Cola Company, managing all the warehouses outside of Lusaka, all the way down to Victoria Falls, 300 miles east to the Malawi border and 200 miles west to the border of what is today Angola.
Within a short time, I was back in Lusaka, with a substantial raise, a company car, and a housing allowance, working for the Coca-Cola Company, an international business. My parents were still in Lusaka, although my mother was very ill. I was awarded stock options for the first time, but was never able to cash them in because they expired in the 1970s during a prolonged slump in Coke’s stock price. Still, I was honored by the options as recognition from the Coca-Cola Company. And later in my career options would prove very lucrative.
Within weeks of my arrival in Lusaka, the most important meeting of my life took place. I was playing rugby for Zambia against a touring team called the Penguins. It was a big event for Lusaka with several thousand spectators. After the event, which we narrowly lost, I was in the main bar of the rugby club with friends and fans who were complimenting me on how well I had played. One was Colin Gill, whom I had known in high school (and caned for smoking, as he reminded me). Colin asked me if I had ever met his sister, Pamela. I had not. She had moved to Zambia as a child from Scotland. Her father was a government engineer and they had lived about ten miles outside of town. As her brother and I brushed through a crowd of people, there was Pamela, this beautiful blond in a miniskirt. She had gorgeous legs and a wonderful smile. As we talked, I was totally captivated, but knew I was due at a team dinner in a few minutes. Being very sure this was an opportunity not to be missed, I asked her for a date to the theater five days later. Off I went to the dinner with the opposing team, returning two hours later for the rest of the festivities, including a dance. And there was Pamela, standing alone. The rest was history! I had found the love of my life, the woman who was not just physically beautiful, but the most supportive and understanding human being you could ever meet. Without her and her support, my ability to succeed would have been severely reduced.
There was, however, a complication. She was married at the time, albeit separated, having returned to stay with her parents in Lusaka after leaving her husband in Rhodesia.
This was 1960s Africa and while the fashions of Carnaby Street had arrived along with the great music of the era, it was still a conservative society. When after a very short period we started living together, it was somewhat scandalous. In addition, I had arranged for her to work at the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. where she was secretary to my boss. In order to ensure decorum was maintained, she always called me Mr. Isdell in the office and we arrived and left separately, even though our relationship was well known. She later worked for me when I was promoted to marketing manager.
Tony Young, who was in charge of West, East, and Central Africa for Coca-Cola at the time, and was very helpful to me in my career, took me aside to describe how conservative the company was. “This will impact your career,” he said of my relationship with Pamela.
I have an impetuous streak when facing criticism and I replied that if I needed to resign, I would. Tony, in a very balanced way, pointed out that I had overreacted, and that I simply needed to be aware of the facts.
In my new job with the company-owned bottler in Lusaka, I was constantly on the move, which involved a great deal of driving often on treacherous roads. I had been assigned to pick up Killeen at the airport in Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to tour the local marketplace. He was flying in aboard a company plane. My car was being repaired so I borrowed a colleague’s. With the border to Rhodesia still closed, oil was still being hauled by road on tankers. The constant leakage made the paved roads slick. The car I was driving slid off the road into a ditch and hit a tree. I was knocked into the backseat, and had to kick the windshield out of the car to get out.
Killeen, meanwhile, was pacing at the airport, wondering where I was. He eventually flew back to Lusaka, exasperated and perplexed that this young employee would stand him up.
By chance, in the first car to see me standing by the side of the road and waving them down was someone I knew, and he gave me a ride back to Lusaka, bloodied and suffering from a concussion. I was immediately taken to the hospital. Killeen’s mood switched quickly from anger to sympathy once he heard of my injuries, salvaging my career, I believe. The car, by the way, was a write-off.
Touring the warehouses throughout my territory and looking for opportunities to expand, I noticed that the eastern section was vastly underserved. It was a three-hundred-mile section, with only thirty miles of paved road. The rest was dirt roads through the bush. Store owners would drive up to the nearest wholesale distributor and load their small vans. They were doing a terrible job at excessive prices. Coke products were not widely available in the marketplace. I made a pitch for a new warehouse bypassing the wholesaler with direct distribution to stores in the main provincial town of Chipata. The company turned me down, saying there was no money in the budget and to try and find another solution.
I proposed setting up my father, who had by then retired from the Zambian police department, as a distributor with a warehouse in Chipata. The company agreed. Surprisingly, I was allowed to own 50 percent of the venture. With bank loans and some of my father’s money, we rented a warehouse and bought two trucks. One weekend a month, I would drive the three hundred miles of mostly dirt roads from Lusaka to Chipata, taking stock and paying the staff. Coke sales in the region were soon up 150 percent, which of course, made Coca-Cola very happy and meant that in my sideline, I was earning a significant incremental sum.
Meanwhile, Pamela and I started a cosmetics business, importing a line called Rimmel from the United Kingdom, shipping stock by air freight into Lusaka to avoid the logistical logjam created by the Rhodesian embargo. It was a strategy based on Coca-Cola strategy: ensure availability. Rimmel grew to become the second most popular cosmetic in Zambia, behind Revlon. I also bought a small painting company that specialized in redecorating foreign embassies. It was a steady, reliable business because the embassy staffs changed every three years and every new diplomat wanted a fresh coat of paint for their offices and house. I soon found that the profits from the side business were twice as much as my Coke salary.
In 1969, when Pamela, now divorced, and I went to tell my mother the wonderful news that she had agreed to become my wife, my mother could only say, “Well, it’s about time, you know. I didn’t approve of the way you were living.”
We were married on January 10, 1970, in Zambia, spending our honeymoon at Lake Malawi, with a first stop at my Coke distribution center in Chipata. My new wife waited in the car for two hours while I paid workers, took stock, and counted the petty cash. I certainly started my marriage the way it would continue for decades to come: a partnership combining hard work and adventure. At the Malawi border, guards detained us for two hours, hoping we would give them a bribe. Only when I told them a fabricated story that I had an appointment the next day to see Malawi’s president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, did the guards stamp our passports and allow us through.
In 1972, Coke offered me a job in Johannesburg, a move engineered by Al Killen. It was clear that this could likely lead to promotions worldwide, but that would be up to me. It was then that I had to make the choice: stay in Zambia as a big fish in a small pond or go global. I chose the latter, selling my side businesses, trading security for risk.
Before moving, Pamela and I decided to take a short vacation in Brazil for Carnival and while there received an ominous telegram informing me not to report to the new job in Johannesburg but to return to Lusaka. I thought I might have been fired and for the last two days of our vacation, we sat on the beach trying to think of anything I had done wrong. Upon returning to Lusaka, I learned that there had only been a change in my job assignment, and that the transfer had been delayed, not halted.
There were at that time restrictions on taking money out of Zambia. I discovered quasilegal loopholes around this. I had arranged for an Argentine rugby team to travel to Lusaka for a match with the Zambian team. Even though I had organized the tour, the Zambian team did not pick me as a starter, knowing that I would soon be leaving for South Africa. It just so happened that one of the Argentine players was injured in a car accident and they couldn’t get a replacement. So I played for the Argentines, which really upset the Zambian selectors, particularly after the Argentine side won. Then something dawned on me. The Argentine players were all there with their traveler’s checks, which I swapped for Zambian currency. We then took the traveler’s checks to South Africa inside the lining of a camera bag. Also, you were allowed to leave Zambia with your personal car. I purchased a twenty thousand dollar two-seater Mercedes-Benz coupe, importing it from Germany to Zambia. I was legally allowed to take the car to South Africa, but I could not afford insurance. Since I was busy with the new job, we agreed that Pamela and her father would drive the car down. At the Rhodesian border, customs inspectors discovered that one of the books in our car was banned in that country. They threatened to impound the Mercedes, i.e. our life’s savings, before being convinced finally to simply seize only the book. Later on the journey, Pamela, driving through bush, had to stop completely as the car was surrounded by a herd of elephants. After experiencing even more questions at the South African border, we were able to get the car safely to a parking garage in Johannesburg. Legally, I was not allowed to sell it for six months and I was not about to drive the car before then, starting it only occasionally to keep the battery charged. I found a willing buyer in Al Killeen, my new boss at Coke and the same man whom I had earlier in my career failed to collect at the airport. We used the money to pay cash for our first home in Johannesburg.
I would never live in Zambia again, but the move from Ulster to Africa was the making of me. It made me want to explore the rest of the world.
Copyright © 2011 by Neville Isdell and David Beasley. Foreword copyright © 2011 by Pamela Isdell