ATLANTA -- For 18 months, it's been the buzz.
At Coca-Cola's North Avenue headquarters, on Wall Street, on Madison Avenue, even at archrival Pepsi-Cola Co.'s headquarters in Somers, N.Y.
When would Chairman and Chief Executive Roberto C. Goizueta pick a president for the world's largest soft-drink company -- the man who will, presumably, assume the helm when Mr. Goizueta retires?
And would Mr. Goizueta choose the odds-on favorite: his longtime protege M. Douglas Ivester? Or would it be the other "co-principal operating officer," John Hunter, who controls the international operations, source of 80 percent of the company's operating profits?
Mr. Goizueta started the gossip-fest in February 1993 when he decided to fill retiring President Donald R. Keough's post with both Mr. Ivester and Mr. Hunter instead of selecting between the two men.
It was more than a year before he made his decision. But in April 1994, Mr. Goizueta told board members that he would recommend they elect Mr. Ivester president and chief operating officer. He had just accepted the board's invitation to remain as chairman past his 65th birthday in November 1996.
Mr. Ivester's promotion became official Thursday morning, when the board approved Mr. Goizueta's recommendation.
"He is the right person for the right job, and now is the right time," the 62-year-old Mr. Goizueta said in an interview shortly after the board made its decision.
Similarly, he said, Mr. Hunter "is the right person for his job at this point in time now, where we have a lot of restructuring to do in international operations and bottler territories. . . . He will continue, I'm sure, to do a magnificent job; he'll just report to Mr. Ivester, not to me."
While it may look as if Mr. Ivester is destined to become chairman and CEO, Mr. Goizueta cautioned the world on Thursday not to jump to any conclusions: "Common wisdom quite often, by the way, tends to be very unwise."
"They don't know when I'm going to retire, and those people don't know what this company's going to look like and what the requirements of the chief executive of this company will be at that point in time."
Those who say that Mr. Ivester is sure to take his place "must be getting some signal from up above, from the Almighty," he said.
That was almost the caution that Mr. Goizueta issued 18 months ago when he appointed Mr. Ivester and Mr. Hunter to the joint posts. And again, it isn't stopping the bookmakers from placing their bets.
Coca-Cola watchers now predict Mr. Ivester and newly elevated executive Jack Stahl, chief financial officer since 1989, are the most likely pair to lead Coca-Cola into the 21st century.
Wall Street wasn't surprised. Coca-Cola's stock price barely acknowledged the announcement, moving up 25 cents to close at $42.50 in New York Stock Exchange trading.
But analysts welcomed the news, not only because Mr. Ivester is highly regarded but because the decision adds an extra measure of certainty about the company's future.
"It's good for morale and for the organization in general for people to know what [the management structure] is going to look like," said PaineWebber beverage analyst Emanuel Goldman.
"It's an intangible but important benefit. And it's the kind of thing you're better off doing sooner rather than later -- and in this case it was done sooner."
To be sure, Mr. Goizueta could have done it even sooner, 18 months ago. So why didn't he?
Mr. Goizueta explained that Mr. Ivester first needed to complete the task that Mr. Keough had started: shoring up Coca-Cola's marketing machine.
In that effort, Mr. Ivester's boldest gambit was deposing then Marketing Chief Peter Sealey and bringing back Sergio Zyman, who had left the company shortly after the "new Coke" debacle. The hard-charging Mr. Zyman had made armies of both enemies and fans during his first tenure at the company from 1979 to 1986.
But the bid paid off. The flurry of marketing initiatives that Mr. Zyman unleashed have, for the most part, been viewed as successes.
That set the stage for Mr. Goizueta to act.
"When they got the marketing function in the great shape it's in today, I felt the time had come," Mr. Goizueta explained. "Had we done this a year ago, it would have been the right man and the right job, but the wrong time."
As Director Herbert Allen sees it, the company has the fortunate problem of being saddled with an overabundance of managers who could fill the top jobs.
"That's why I think it's really laughable when it's been said that 'Coca-Cola has succession problems,' " Mr. Allen said. "They could throw a dart at a board with 10 names on it and probably come up with a good leader."