Charlotte adds punch to expansion drive Retired Coca-Cola president, retail chief join group


The group seeking to bring football to Charlotte, N.C. -- long troubled by questions of financial might -- may have answered some of those questions yesterday with the addition of two heavy-hitting and well-connected investors, including the retired

president of Coca-Cola Co.

Donald R. Keough, the Coke executive, and Leon Levine, a multi-millionaire retail executive, have joined the group headed by ex-Colt and food services company executive Jerry Richardson.

Charlotte is competing with Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., for one of two expansion franchises the NFL plans to award late next month.

Charlotte's market is viewed as alluring to the NFL, but its ownership group lacks public funding for a stadium. In lieu of that, the prospective owners of its team plan to raise money from season-ticket fees and borrowing -- a burden in light of the $140 million franchise fee. Critics have suggested financial problems as the Achilles' heel of the city's bid.

Keough, 67, described by one analyst as the "statesman of Coke" during his tenure, is now chairman of Allen & Co., a small but highly regarded Wall Street investment firm that specializes in the entertainment industry. Herbert Allen, the firm's chief executive, is a major Coca-Cola stockholder.

Keough started with the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola in 1950 and rose through various marketing positions, becoming president and chief operating officer in 1981 and retiring April 15. He was also chairman of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., a major bottler partly owned by Coca-Cola, from 1986 until this year.

During Keough's tenure at the $13-billion-a-year Coca-Cola, the company launched many initiatives, including the purchase of Minute Maid, introduction of Sprite, Tab, New Coke and Diet Coke, and the purchase and sale of Columbia Pictures.

"The perception of Don Keough was he was the statesman of Coke, a very outgoing, friendly, personable marketing guy. I think he was highly regarded within the industry," said a Wall Street analyst who follows Coke and asked not to be identified.

Said another Wall Street insider, "If Allen & Co. is involved, there are deep pockets. Either he himself has deep pockets or he knows people who do."

Coca-Cola's most recent proxy statement, an annual filing with regulators, reported Keough's 1992 salary and bonus at $2.14 million. It also listed his stock holdings in the company at slightly more than 5 million shares, which would be worth about $220 million at current values.

The company is one of the nation's most active sponsors of sports events, which was a major factor in Sporting News last year ranking Keough as the 27th most influential figure in sports.

Levine, 57, founded Family Dollar Stores Inc. in Charlotte in 1959 and is chairman. The discount retailer now has 2,039 stores in 33 states, often in lower-income communities. Levine owns about $179 million worth of stock in the company.

Forbes magazine last year ranked Levine among the nation's 400 wealthiest people, with a net worth the magazine estimated at $380 million for 1991. He has sold millions of dollars worth of stock in his company over the past year.

"I think there are two reasons everyone adds partners: to relieve any concerns about ability and to spread the financial commitment," said Max Muhleman, a consultant working on behalf of Charlotte's bid.

Bryan Glazer, son of Florida-based corporate investor Malcolm Glazer, who hopes to own a team in Baltimore, said: "The more people the groups add the better off Baltimore is. In our group, there is one person, my father, who will call all the shots and the NFL knows that."

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