Coke CEO Kent’s leadership lesson

May 17, 2012, 6:50 PM UTC

Ambassador Necdet Kent

My dad died last week, and I was lucky enough to spend most of his last month with him in Pennsylvania. A great time, a great life, no regrets. Hours before he died, I got an email from Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, wishing my dad well and commenting on my Coke story in the current Fortune 500 issue. My dad never got the chance to see the story, but I read Kent’s very kind email to him. It was the last thing my dad comprehended.

The week before my dad became ill, I spent five days in Asia with Kent, and the CEO and I had plenty of time to talk about life as well as business. During the trip in late March, Kent told me about his dad and the special time he spent with him during his years away from Coke–when Kent, disillusioned with Coke’s direction, went off to build a brewer in Turkey, his homeland. The CEO’s dad, Necdet Kent, was an extraordinary man. When Muhtar was a young boy, his father was Turkey’s ambassador to Thailand, and then to India, Sweden and Poland. While Muhtar grew up to be a great CEO–and turned around Coca-Cola after years of trouble–he doesn’t hold a candle to his dad in the hero department.

Necdet Kent saved scores of Jews during World War II. In 1943, when he was a foreign service officer posted in Marseille, France, he learned one day that the Germans had loaded 80 Turkish Jews into cattle cars, to take them to a concentration camp. According to published reports, Kent told the Gestapo officer to release the Jews—they were Turkish citizens, Kent noted, and Turkey was mainly neutral in the war. The German officer refused—the passengers were nothing but Jews, he said to Kent. So what did Kent do? He boarded the train, negotiated and refused to get off until all the Jews were permitted to get off with him.

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent

This was just one act of bravery by Muhtar Kent’s father. During his three years stationed in Marseilles, Necdet Kent reportedly issued Turkish ID papers to many Jews who had fled to southern France without their Turkish passports.

Necdet Kent refused any public commendation for his heroism until Muhtar took him to Israel shortly before he died in 2002. (He died at 91, the same age that my dad reached). “Life is all about respecting others,” says Muhtar, who now trots the globe selling both Coke and tolerance. “I’m very proud to have been raised as a secular Muslim,” he adds. “Only with tolerance can we pass a better world on to the next generation.”