Born in Columbus, Georgia, on December 6, 1889, Robert Winship Woodruff was the son of Ernest Woodruff, who later became a prominent businessman in Atlanta. Robert Woodruff was educated at Georgia Military Academy and attended Emory University from 1908 to 1910. In the latter year he became a machinist's apprentice and then salesman at General Fire Extinguisher Company. Having proven himself in this position, his father hired him as a salesman and buyer for his Atlantic Ice Company in 1911. A couple of years later young Woodruff began negotiating with Walter White, head of White Motor Company, to purchase a fleet of trucks to replace the horse-drawn delivery wagons used by his father's firm. Upon hearing of this, an irate Ernest Woodruff fired his son, but White hired him as a salesman for White Motor. Woodruff moved rapidly up the ranks as he proved himself to be the firm's top truck salesman. In 1919 he was named vice-president and general manager, serving in that position until 1923.
In 1923 Ernest Woodruff, finding himself in desperate straits, convinced his son to return to Atlanta to help with a recent business acquisition. In 1919 the elder Woodruff, along with others, had purchased the Coca-Cola Company. The cola firm, after reaching peak sales of $31 million in 1920, had suffered a series of business reverses, and it was clear that new, aggressive, and innovative management was needed.
Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by John S. Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist who manufactured several patent medicines. It was a modification of something called French Wine Cola and was marketed as a cure-all for headaches, sluggishness, indigestion, and hangovers. The business changed hands a few times over the next couple of years, and in 1891 was purchased by Asa Griggs Candler, another Atlanta druggist, who coincidently had been Robert Wood-ruff's Sunday school teacher. Candler soon realized that the product had greater potential as a soda fountain drink and began erecting Coca-Cola signs on barns all over the country. By 1895 the drink was sold in every state and territory of the nation, and in 1899 Candler set up the franchise system for dealers. In 1916 Candler stepped down as president of the company, giving all but one percent of his stock to family members. Three years later, without consulting him, they sold out to Woodruff's syndicate for $25 million.
Under Robert Woodruff's regime, the Coca-Cola Company was rapidly invigorated. Sales rose in seven years from $24 million to $30 million, while net profits climbed from $5 million to $13 million. This transformation was accomplished in a number of ways. First, Woodruff employed a massive advertising campaign, with the goal of making Coca-Cola as "American" as baseball and hot dogs. The famous advertising slogan "The Pause that Refreshes" was penned at this time, and over the years "Coke" became a symbol of the United States more widely recognized than the flag itself. Woodruff also abolished the sales department, substituting instead a service department, the principal function of which would be assisting Coca-Cola bottlers, distributors, and fountain operators to increase their profits. A large number of people were also put to work in market research, determining why people drink the beverages they do and developing advertising which exploited these findings.
Robert Woodruff remained president of Coca-Cola until 1939, when he became chairman of the board. He retained the latter position until 1942, when he became chairman of the executive committee. From 1955 until 1981 he served as a director and chairman of the finance committee. He finally left the board in 1984, having served the company for 61 years. During all this time, whatever his title, there was never much question who ran the company. "Mr. Bob," as he was deferentially known, seldom issued a direct order, signed a contract, or dispatched a memorandum. Nevertheless, he dominated the company by the force of his personality, by unremitting energy and attention to detail, and by delegating functions to men of special talent.
By the time of his death in 1985 Coca-Cola had become a massive company with sales of $7.36 billion. Although Woodruff diversified the company somewhat in the 1950s, soft drinks in 1983 still accounted for 80 percent of its profits. Woodruff's major accomplishment was the transformation of Coca-Cola from a national to a universal drink. In 1985 it was the world's single largest selling product, accounting for some $2.3 billion of the company's $5 billion in sales. Coke was sold in 135 countries. Around the globe, Coca-Cola is consumed about 60 million times a day, and only a few areas have not been visited by the cola invasion. Much of this expansion has been due to Wood-ruff's style of advertising. As he explained: "We've tried to show Coca-Cola as a pleasant, unassuming social amenity. I guess that's what they now call the soft sell. We've never made claims. We've tried to do with our advertising what we always try to do with everybody inside and outside the company - to be liked."
Outside of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff was an enormous economic and political power in Atlanta, in Georgia, and in the nation. The extent of his national political power was shown during World War II when, despite sugar rationing, Coke got its requirements on the plea that G.I.s shouldn't be deprived of the morale effects of a handy bottle of Coke. In Atlanta itself it was often commented that the power structure was split 50/50 - with Woodruff one 50 and everyone else the other 50. As one intimate commented: "It's not that he decides all kinds of things, it's just that the others won't do anything they know he is really against." As an economic power Woodruff sat on the boards of a large number of major American corporations and was also a longtime member of the Business Advisory Council of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
A major philanthropist, during his lifetime Woodruff gave away an estimated $350 million, much of it anonymously, to medicine, the arts, and education. His principal benefaction, however, was Emory University. Towards the end of 1979 he gave Emory three million shares of Coca-Cola stock, then worth about $100 million. It was called the largest single benefaction in American history and brought to over $200 million the total he had given the university. Emory, with five million shares of stock, became one of the largest owners of Coca-Cola. Woodruff also established the R. W. Woodruff Memorial Clinic and the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Foundation. He and his wife were childless, and it was often speculated that he lavished his paternal affections on Coke. Shortly before he died in Atlanta on March 7, 1985, Coke executives brought Woodruff the new formula they had developed, the first change in nearly 100 years. He evidently approved, but would undoubtedly be aghast at the massive consumer resistance which developed against the new product, forcing the return to the marketplace of the original formula under the name Classic Coca-Cola.