By Patricia Sellers
November 21, 2012

Brian Kelley, who on Tuesday was named CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters

, is a big loss for Coca-Cola

.

Recruited to Coke by CEO Muhtar Kent in 2007, Kelley has been instrumental to the turnaround of the world’s largest beverage company. A quiet hard-charger with a stellar resume—he ran Lincoln Mercury for Ford

following stints at General Electric

and Procter & Gamble

—Kelly was CEO of SIRVA, a $3.7 billion company once known as North American Van Lines, when Kent discovered him. Kelley initially headed Coke’s still beverage business–water, teas, juices and sports drinks. He was then charged with integrating  the North American bottling operations that Coke bought  from Coca-Cola Enterprises CCE) for $12.3 billion. When I interviewed Kent for “The New Coke” in Fortune last spring, the CEO lauded Kelley for pulling off the integration more quickly than he had expected.

Recently, Kelley has been chief product supply officer, in charge of the supply chain for Coca-Cola Refreshments, which is the company’s North American business unit.  He was slated to move into a bigger gig, president of Coca-Cola Refreshments, on January 1.

Kelley was not in line to be Coke’s next CEO, which may be why he is leaving for the coffee biz. At Vermont-based Green Mountain, which brought in revenue of $3.6 billion last year, he may be moving to an even tougher challenge than the revival of $46.5 billion Coca-Cola. Green Mountain, once high-flying, has been plagued by management turnover, SEC probes, rows with investors, and fierce competition from Starbucks

. Green Mountain sells the Keurig brand of single-serve coffee makers, a business that Starbucks is aiming to conquer.

In the past two years, Green Mountain’s stock more than tripled and has since collapsed below what it was.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s profits and stock price have risen steadily under Kent. And the impending management realignment clarifies the company’s CEO succession outlook.

One contender to succeed Kent as Coke’s CEO had been Latin American boss José Octavio “Pacho” Reyes. But he now plans to retire in March 2014. Reyes’ exit leaves two frontrunners. One is Steve Cahillane, 47, a Kent recruit from Labatt USA, where he was president until 2007. Cahillane currently leads Coca-Cola Refreshments, the domestic unit that Kelley was supposed to run. In January, Cahillane will take charge of the Americas, both north and south. Last spring, Kent described Cahillane as a “a no-nonsense operator” who steers clear of corporate politics–something that poisoned Coke pre-Kent. “People like to work for Steve,” Kent told me.

Ahmet Bozer, who like Kent was born and raised in Turkey, is the other contender to succeed him. Bozer, 52, heads Coca-Cola’s Eurasia and Africa group. In January, he will  move up to oversee all international operations outside of the Americas.

Not that Kent is planning to retire anytime soon. The Coke chief will turn 60 on December 1. The company does not have a mandatory retirement age.

Meanwhile, the board loves what Kent has done since he took charge July 1, 2008. Last spring, when I asked Coke director Barry Diller, the CEO of IAC

, how long the board would like Kent to stay, he replied: “How about 2040? He gets better every year.”

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