Robert Ireland, a Coca-Cola veteran who served as the company’s chief customer officer in Europe, died Sept. 11 at the age of 58. He was diagnosed with lymphoma last year.
Ireland joined the Coca-Cola system in 1985, when he embarked on his career as commercial manager for Refreshment Spectrum Limited, and held posts throughout Europe, along with a stint in the United States. He was a greatly respected leader who was known for everything from significant contributions to the Coke business to his very British sense of humour. Oct. 21 would have marked his 30th year with Coca-Cola.
“Robert made many contributions to our business, and he did it with his own distinct style,” said James Quincey, president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola. “We’ll greatly miss his passion for the company, his energy, his toughness and all of the laughs he brought to us over the years.”
Ireland was born in Surbiton, England, and earned a degree in history from the University of Leeds, where he also met his wife, Mel. He first worked for the former Rank Hovis McDougall, a U.K. food business, and then for Allied-Lyons, which is now part of by Pernod Ricard, before joining Coca-Cola in 1985. He held a variety of jobs in the Coke system over the next three decades. He served as a region manager in Ireland and The Netherlands before transferring to Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). He worked in Houston and then as sales and marketing manager in Great Britain.
After those assignments with CCE, Ireland returned to The Coca-Cola Company as commercial director for global customers, home market. He was named chief customer officer for Europe in 2008.
“Robert was an incredible leader and person,” said Julie Hamilton, Coca-Cola’s vice president and chief customer and commercial leadership officer. “He was passionate about our customers, our system and his team. He operated with the highest integrity and had a fabulously witty sense of humor that touched everyone he met. I feel privileged to have had a chance to work with him for many years and to have considered him a friend.”
When Robert was diagnosed with lymphoma in July 2014, he was being treated for a cure. Treatment went well and all was looking positive. However, cancer can be a challenging, unpredictable adversary and, in March this year, he relapsed.
He needed a stem cell, or bone marrow, transplant at this juncture to save his life. However, his tissue type was incredibly rare, making it hard to find it a match.
As a consequence, Ireland's three daughters – Emma, Sophie and Georgie – took the initiative to seek potential donors via social media. Their Facebook page eventually garnered more than 47,000 likes, and they went on to appear in various media outlets ranging from the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph to BBC News, Sky News and Good Morning Britain. The campaign created a surge in enrollment in donor registries.
“We never anticipated this reaction in the slightest,” Georgie Ireland said earlier this year. “Initially, we set up our Facebook group just to reach out to friends. Even within 24 hours, we were receiving messages from complete strangers who had gone through a similar ordeal or had donated their stem cells at some point.“
Coca-Cola employees from London and around the world signed up for donor registries, too, spurred by the campaign to help their colleague. Ultimately, although donor registries grew, doctors were unable to find an appropriate match.
The Ireland family chronicled Robert’s battle against lymphoma through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a blog. Robert personally wrote some items, including a remembrance of his time in the army. The military, he wrote, helped him see that real leadership is based on being tested in very difficult situations.
“I learnt at a very young age never to make a judgment on anyone until I have seen them under pressure, outside their comfort zone or stripped of the trappings of office,” he wrote. “I am not saying I have nailed what leadership is, but I can tell you what it is not. I have spent the last 40 years studying and trying to understand what makes an effective leader.”
Hubert Patricot, executive vice president and president, European Group, Coca-Cola Enterprises, said Ireland was an invaluable leader for the Coca-Cola system, bringing a mixture of modesty and a sense of teamwork.
“Even in the most tense negotiations – and he knew how to say no – he would always place a joke. I do not know of anybody who could resist Robert's laughs,” Patricot said. “I have always felt blessed and privileged to have Robert as my colleague and friend, today more than ever. And I know his inspiration will live long through his team and all those who had the chance to approach him.”
Prior to his death, Ireland sent an email to Coca-Cola colleagues. “I do not believe I have lost my ‘battle with cancer,’” he wrote. “It is just that medical science could not keep pace with the hurricane of nature that was foisted upon me.
“It has been a huge privilege to work for the business for the last 30 years,” he continued. “I have thrived on the challenges of the global reach of our operation and the opportunity it has given me to work and interact with so many outstanding people.”