Global crisis: Fortune 500 CEOs weigh in

I took a 7 a.m. Acela from New York to Washington, D.C. this morning to meet with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and then attend the Fortune 500 Forum, beginning this afternoon. My train was on time to the minute; Rhee’s red-eye from the West Coast was delayed by D.C. fog, so she and I are now due to meet Wednesday. I’ll share my thoughts later this week about Rhee, who happens to be the subject of this week’s Time cover story. Public education has never before met a maverick and lightning rod quite like Rhee.

As for the Fortune 500 Forum, I’ll be sharing the highlights of that. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is up first at 3 p.m. today, followed by my favorite management guru, Jim Collins (Good to Great). Over the next three days, the speakers include a slew of Fortune 500 CEOs such as FedEx’s (FDX) Fred Smith, Kodak’s (EK) Antonio Perez, Best Buy’s (BBY) Brad Anderson, AT&T’s Randall Stephenson, and American Express’s (AXP) Ken Chenault. Particularly with the Dow down big again today, it’ll be interesting to see how fretful these bosses are about the global economy.

Speaking of the global economy, I was just at Coca-Cola (KO) – which operates in over 200 countries – and stopped by for a brief chat with new CEO Muhtar Kent. This 30-year Coke veteran, who hails from Turkey originally, was rushing off to speak to Wharton students about the global financial crisis, and I asked him what he planned to say. “Keep in mind that for every headwind we confront, there’s an equally powerful tailwind to be ridden. The trick is finding it,” he said.

This sounded to me a bit like that “every challenge is an opportunity” platitude. But Kent, who stepped up to CEO last July, argues convincingly that there is plenty of tailwind to ride. Four massive global trends are unfolding, he contends: rising demand (and cost) for energy, rising food prices, a growing middle class, and rapid urbanization. The first two, of course, are not positive. Higher energy and food costs require companies like his to manage in an economy of constant scarcity and cost pressure – “the new normal,” Kent calls it. But, by 2020, a billion new people will enter the middle class, he says. Most will reside in urban areas – to such an extent that within the next 12 years, China, India and the southern hemisphere will be more urban than North America, Europe and Japan. And more urban, mobile consumers mean growth for a company that already derives four-fifths of its profits internationally.

You might have noticed that the financial crisis is not on Kent’s list of massive trends. “The current global financial crisis, while painful and pervasive, did not make the list because I believe it will be a distant memory in a few short years,” he told the students at Wharton. “As traumatic as it seems today, it will have little material impact on the much broader global developments already in place.” Now that really sounds optimistic, doesn’t it? I think so too, but trust me, Kent is anything but a Pollyanna. When I remarked that it’s good to see Coke performing solidly again after a decade of poor performance and CEO turnover, he stared at me sternly and replied, “I’m not happy.” Inside Coke, I hear, this new guy in charge is as tough as they come.

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