NAMES IN BUSINESS: Delta CEO contenders could form dynamic team

As Delta Air Lines prepares to name a successor to CEO Gerald Grinstein, a history lesson might be in order.

So far, the spotlight has been on two internal candidates --- Ed Bastian, the firm's chief financial officer; and Jim Whitehurst, Delta's chief operating officer --- who both were instrumental in helping the airline emerge from bankruptcy.

Both are strongly supported by Grinstein, who would like to retire sooner rather than later.

But the decision will be up to Delta's new board of directors, which includes Grinstein and 10 outside directors.

The common scenario in most companies when there is a race for CEO is that one wins and the other loses. It's usually only a matter of time before the loser leaves.

But there is another way, and that's where the history lesson comes in.

In 1979, Coca-Cola had six vice chairmen --- all of them potential contenders to become the top executive.

According to "The Real Coke, the Real Story," (a book written by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Thomas Oliver), the speculation was that the top job would go to Donald Keough, who had the highest profile externally.

But Keough felt the other strong contender was Roberto Goizueta, who was better known inside the company than on the outside.

On Feb. 14, 1980, Keough and Goizueta attended a birthday party in New York of then-CEO J. Paul Austin. After dinner at the Four Seasons, Goizueta and Keough met at the St. Regis Hotel bar. They talked about who might be named Coca-Cola's new executive, recognizing that they were the two top contenders. By the time they left they had struck a deal.

"Nobody knows how this is going to work out," Keough told Goizueta that night. "The two of us are quite compatible, and we have different skills. So let's sleep at night. Whoever comes out on top, let's put the other to work immediately."

So when Coca-Cola mogul Robert Woodruff, who at 90 was still calling the shots, offered Goizueta the top job, the one request Goizueta made was to pick his own team --- namely Keough as his No. 2.

"That'll be fine with me and fine with the board," Woodruff reportedly told Goizueta.

What emerged from that deal was one of the strongest corporate partnerships in Atlanta history. Goizueta and Keough brilliantly ran Coca-Cola together until 1993, when Keough retired. And even then, their relationship endured.

The other dream team in Atlanta corporate history was Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, who co-founded Home Depot and built the nation's second-largest retailer.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if Bastian, 50, and Whitehurst, 39, could form such a partnership?

Delta has been through so much turmoil in the past few years that it would be comforting to have two of the chief architects of its rejuvenation continue as a team.

Delta spokesman Kent Landers said he can't talk about what may happen in the future because that decision rests solely with the board.

But he said Bastian and Whitehurst worked well together during the restructuring.

"Both have been focused on very important but different parts of the restructuring," Landers said. "Together they certainly know complementary parts of the business. They executed our transformation plan together."

Both Whitehurst and Bastian have said they each plan to stay at Delta even if they don't get the top job. If they are able to strike a deal like Goizueta and Keough, then both of them, along with Atlanta and Delta, would emerge as winners.

Atlanta on global stage

As host of the inaugural Americas Competitiveness Forum, Atlanta and Georgia were again on the global stage.

Leaders from throughout the hemisphere spent two days discussing ways to improve productivity and economic prosperity by trading and partnering with other nations in the Americas.

The idea of the forum came from President Bush following the Summit of the Americas in 2005.

Atlanta had to compete against Louisville, Ky., and the Research Triangle Park, N.C., to hold the inaugural forum. Metro Atlanta and state leaders --- from government, business and civic groups --- raised $300,000 in cash and sponsorships to hold the two-day summit, which also had the backing of the Department of Commerce.

"We really wanted this," said Hans Gant of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough said the forum fits with the profile Atlanta is trying to present to the world.

"I think Atlanta needs to build on its presence as an intellectual place that understands economic development in the highest sense," Clough said. "We have to constantly be ready to innovate."

Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, which helped put together the conference, said it is a feather in Atlanta's cap.

"For Atlanta, it's a signal that it is a gateway for innovation throughout the Americas," she said. "When we look back 10 years from now, we will see Atlanta as an innovation hot spot. This is showcasing the best of America."

Help Grady, please

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who gave his annual talk to the Atlanta Rotary this week, got one tough question at the end of his talk.

A Rotarian pleaded with the governor to help the financially challenged Grady Hospital because it is an asset for the state.

"If it were just an infusion of cash, we would already be there," Perdue said, adding Grady's governance is also an issue. "More meddling would not be helpful."

Perdue said he is in touch with Cousins Properties' Tom Bell and H.J. Russell & Co.'s Michael Russell, who co-chair a business-led Grady task force. Perdue said: "We are looking forward to their report."

msaporta@ajc.com



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