Ex-Coke boss has a thirst for Irish studies


When Don Keough called it a day as president of the Coca-Cola Company, as he says himself, he retired for 12 hours. The next day he started as chairman of New York investment bank Allen&Company.p. Mr Keough, who turned 77 this month, retains more jobs in his so-called retirement than many people might aspire to achieve in a lifetime. He remains a key adviser to the Coca-Cola company and, apart from chairing Allen&Company, several companies have also turned to him for advice – including the Washington Post, McDonald’s and the Yankee Nets.p. He spends around one-third of his time in New York and when he is not travelling, he spends the rest at his home in Atlanta. He plans to keep on going. “I’m blessed with a lot of energy. Being in the centre of life is where the fun is. My idea of hell would be to go down to some watering hole somewhere, buy two pairs of pink pants and wait for the cocktail hour.”p. But Don Keough’s great labour of love, especially since he retired from his executive role at Coke in 1993, has been the development of an Irish studies programme at the University of Notre Dame. This programme has expanded to such an extent that it has 12 full-time lecturers and 600 students per year, taking 25 different courses in aspects of Irish studies – from history, literature, film and theatre to the Irish language.p. “We have four classes in Irish language and it is hard to get in,” he says.p. Keough’s association with Notre Dame began when his daughter (one of six children) went to study there. Keough, like many other Irish-Americans, was very aware of his own Irish heritage and roots. His family had emigrated from Wexford, arrived in Boston and taken up ‘homesteading’ in Iowa, where land could be got for free if a family was willing to work it.p. Keough saw Notre Dame as a great place for his children to study and he duly became a lifetime trustee. But he was surprised to discover that despite the University’s strong Irish links, it didn’t have much by way of courses in Irish history and literature. “There were no Irish programmes. Yet it seemed so logical.”p. Keough endowed a chair of Irish studies. Writer and academic Seamus Deane came over to do the job. But quite quickly, the project expanded into the Keough Institute for Irish Studies. It expanded to Ireland with a special programme in Newman House, which enables dozens of students to come to Dublin every year for at least a semester and take courses in Irish studies at UCD and TCD.p. The Institute now offers PhDs in Irish studies and, as Don Keough points out, it isn’t just Irish-Americans who are taking the courses. The first PhD went to a woman who had grown up on a Native American Reservation.p. Last year, Glen Dimplex chairman Martin Naughton and Keough bought the former residence of Daniel O’Connell on Merrion Square for the Institute. “If you think about O’Connell and what the programme is doing, he would have been delighted to know what the house is being used for now,” Keough said.p. The former president of Coca-Cola has ploughed an estimated $20m of his own money into the development of Irish studies. Why? “If you have been lucky enough to have made some money, you have to decide where you want to put it.”p. “When I think of the uniqueness of the Irish story, the extraordinary contributions Irish people have made in all fields, the great lessons of Irish history and the great writers, they all make a wonderful academic canvas,” he said.p. Keough’s own story makes an interesting canvas itself. He grew up in Iowa and went to study at Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Nebraska. During this time, he met long-time friend Warren Buffett. This friendship led to all kinds of business connections for the two. Buffett became a major investor in Coca-Cola. Keough later sat on the board of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.p. After graduating from university, he won a scholarship to work in television in the late 1940s and presented his own show. He later worked for a coffee company which was taken over by Coca-Cola. One of his first ventures, after becoming president of Coca-Cola, was to buy Columbia Pictures in 1982 for $750m. The company was later sold for over $3bn.p. A typical few days for the 77-year old sees him begin the day with some yoga, put in the hours at Allen&Company, attend a Yankee Nets board meeting, fly home to Atlanta from New York and return a day later. Each year he organises an international “think-in” at SunValley, Wyoming, which is attended by some of the world’s leading executives.p. Meanwhile, Allen&Company is a backer of Merrion Capital in Dublin, the broking and corporate finance firm set up after a group of executives split from NCB in 1999.p. Keough’s early connections with Ireland weren’t just about his family. As Coke increased its presence in Ireland, particularly with the construction of a plant in Drogheda, Keough increased his visits. Over the years, he has been asked for economic advice from three different Taoisigh, from Charles Haughey to Bertie Ahern.p. While he acknowledges Ireland’s dependence on the economic fortunes of the US economy, Keough is anything but downbeat about the current downturn.p. “When you look at Europe over the last 20 years, there’s not a country that can touch Ireland. There hasn’t been a new job created in (continental) Europe in 15 years. In Ireland, the Government opened its arms to foreign investment. What Ireland has to offer is spectacular.”p. “The problem with success is that everyone expects it to go on at the same rate. Ireland may be off peak but it is still doing extremely well,” he says.p. As for the American economy, Keough does see room for optimism. “From what I gather, the recession is over but nobody knows it. You have had a lot of jobs go in this country, and some of them are not going to return. But there are signs of consumer confidence and market confidence returning,” he says.p. Keough points to the fact that in the 100 years from 1900 to 2000, for 54 years the stock market was flat or down.p. “I believe we are coming out of recession but I don’t think it will be a fast change. You will begin to see more consumer confidence coming back.”

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