One hundred is simply a number — one more than 99, one less than 101.
It is a milestone nonetheless, celebrated far and wide, especially in reference to number of years.
Franklin Garrett, in his history of Atlanta, “Atlanta and Environs,” helpfully to this writer anyway organized his two volumes by years, and 1919 does not disappoint.
It could be argued the single-most significant event in the history of Atlanta happened that year: a transaction that put our city on the world map, put millions upon millions of dollars in the pockets of our leading residents and created tens of thousands of jobs.
In 1919, the Trust Co. of Georgia purchased the Coca-Cola Co. for $25 million from the family of Asa Candler.
Candler touted his wholesale and retail drug business as the sole proprietor of Coca-Cola as early as 1889. It wasn’t until 1892 that he gained sole ownership of the soft drink, for which he paid $2,300. Over the next three decades, he grew the company exponentially, establishing the trademark and ensuring the carbonated soft drink was available in every state in the country.
In 1919, Candler gave most of his stake in Coca-Cola to his five children: Charles Howard Candler, Asa G. Candler Jr., Walter T. Candler, William Candler and Lucy Beall Candler. Other shareholders at the time included John S. Candler, Samuel D. Dobbs, Frank M. Robinson and Samuel L. Willard.
The new ownership group promptly sold the company to the Atlanta financial institution led by Ernest Woodruff. Each of the shareholders received $10 million in preferred stock in the new company, which retained the name Coca-Cola Co. The new company was incorporated in Delaware but kept its headquarters in Atlanta.
Trust Co. of Georgia made 500,000 shares available to the public for $40 each.
The man behind the transaction was a mystery to most.
In 1951, Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill wrote Woodruff was “… a man wrapped almost always in silent thought and the smoke of a cigar.” In 1923, Woodruff’s son, Robert Winship Woodruff, became the president of the company, launching Coca-Cola into the stratosphere by ensuring its drinks were available around the world.
Robert Woodruff was a transformational leader not only for the Coca-Cola Co. but for the city of Atlanta. While William B. Hartsfield is credited with the credo, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” Robert Woodruff’s success made that a reality.
As a leader of Atlanta’s business community, he rallied people to important causes, including honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his Nobel Peace Prize, and contributing the funds for the Woodruff Arts Center, which initially was an anonymous gift. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation is one of — if not the — most important nonprofits in Atlanta to this day.
Meanwhile, as his company grew, many Atlantans became exponentially wealthy as a result of that initial investment all those years ago.
The purchase by the Trust Co. of Georgia is the reason the bank is still in Atlanta today, now SunTrust. And beyond those initial owners, Atlantans who purchased those first shares did incredibly well for themselves. According to an investment website, a single share in 1919 would be worth $394,352 in 2012. If the investor continued to reinvest the dividends in the company, which many did, that $40 investment would be worth a staggering $9.8 million today.
Many of those investors shaped the city through their generosity and their leadership. I’ve also heard stories over the years of friends of the Woodruffs and Candlers who declined that initial offering, expecting the stock would be worthless in a few years.
Who knows what would have happened to Coca-Cola had it stayed in the Candler family and hadn’t raised all of that money through the public stock offering. Just back-of-the-napkin math, 500,000 shares and $40 apiece raised $20 million in 1919. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $300 million in today’s money.
Above the airport, which initially carried the name Candler Field in honor of Asa Candler; the Civil Rights Movement or William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, taking Coca-Cola Co. public in 1919 may have had the greatest impact on the city of Atlanta.
It created transformational wealth for many generations of Atlantans: many, many jobs and, more importantly, Atlanta became part and parcel with the world’s largest beverage company and its iconic red and white sweeping trademark.