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The Coca-Cola Co., the odds-on favorite, should have won the competition. It didn’t. Coke blew the opportunity, and PepsiCo Inc. seized it. This isn’t about market share, a nifty new drink or anything likely to shift stock prices. It is about a chance to make a brilliant move. Coke moved like an elephant, Pepsi like a fly. It started when Coke launched a search for a new general counsel. The current GC, Deval L. Patrick, is leaving at the end of the year, Coke announced in April. What the Atlanta-based soft-drink giant needs is a strong lawyer, someone with a reputation for integrity and with the experience to get it through a quagmire of criminal investigations and regulatory problems. Someone who understands its business and its culture would be good, too. And if the vacancy also offers the chance to hire a black, fine. Patrick is Coke’s highest-ranking black executive, and Coke is still getting racial pressures from lawsuits and Jesse Jackson. Enter onto the corporate counsel job market Larry D. Thompson, 59, former deputy U.S. attorney general with deep ties to Coke and Atlanta. CORPORATE CRIME Need someone who knows about white-collar misdeeds? As the Justice Department’s No. 2 lawyer, Thompson headed up the federal task force on corporate crime during its most critical phase. Before that, he was a partner in Coke’s longtime law firm, Atlanta’s King & Spalding, where he represented corporate defendants and ran the firm’s white-collar defense unit. But when Coke’s chief executive officer, E. Neville Isdell, interviewed Thompson for the job, he didn’t invite Thompson aboard, said Griffin B. Bell, a former U.S. attorney general and King & Spalding partner who has discussed the matter with Thompson. Isdell told Thompson he would send his name along to a search committee, according to Bell, who has been a mentor to Thompson. “It wasn’t like turning him down,” Bell said of Coke. “They just didn’t hire him.” Up in Purchase, N.Y., on the other hand, PepsiCo’s CEO, Steven S. Reinemund, wasted no time. As soon as the interview was over, he offered Thompson the job, according to Bell. CONTINUING SEARCH It’s always possible, of course, that Coke didn’t see Thompson as someone they had to have. A company spokeswoman would say only that the search is still on for a general counsel and Coke is working through a search firm. Too much bureaucracy is the most obvious explanation, given Thompson’s r�sum�. Coke is “an ultra, ultra-conservative company,” said Thomas Pirko, president of beverage consulting firm Bevmark. “It moves slowly.” Meanwhile, Thompson was getting other job offers. Bell said BellSouth Corp. wanted him, and so did King & Spalding, where Thompson had been a partner. He took PepsiCo, said Bell, because Reinemund impressed Thompson tremendously and the job includes running the company’s governmental affairs division as well as its legal unit. “He liked the Pepsi set-up. He liked the CEO,” Bell said in a telephone interview. JOB HUNT Thompson declined to discuss his job hunt. “It would be inappropriate,” he said. Up until he accepted the Pepsi job in the New York City suburb of Westchester County, Thompson showed every indication of wanting to stay put. A Missouri native, he and his wife, Brenda, moved to Atlanta 27 years ago, raised two sons and have never completely left. During his stint at the Justice Department in Washington, Thompson commuted frequently to Atlanta, where his wife stayed and kept her job as a school psychologist. They also have a home on St. Simons Island. When he left the Justice Department last year to decompress, he took a senior fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a teaching stint at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens. For an establishment lawyer who wants to stay in Atlanta, what better place could there be but Coca-Cola, an Atlanta institution? LOSING APPEAL In recent years, Coke has lost some of its appeal. “The company has been in disarray,” said Pirko, who has worked as a consultant to Coke and Pepsi. In a telephone interview, he cited “a dispiriting quality that has pervaded” the company. Executive after executive has either been ushered out or quit. Coke’s stock price declined 21 percent this year, while PepsiCo’s rose 4 percent. PepsiCo recently announced a 35 percent increase in third-quarter earnings. When Isdell announced lower-than-expected earnings at Coke last month, he pledged “strong corrective actions.” Stockholders, including me, can only hope he can pull that off. As for Thompson’s other job offers, a BellSouth spokeswoman declined to discuss its search. Last month, the company announced it was promoting Marc Gary, associate general counsel, to its top legal slot. At King & Spalding, “We were disappointed,” said Bell. On the other hand, there’s a decent chance Thompson won’t stay wherever he lands. If President Bush gets a second term, Thompson would be on a shortlist to replace Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. Bell, attorney general under President Carter, is among Thompson’s boosters. When King & Spalding was courting Thompson, Bell said, it was to give him “a place to light until he gets back in government.”

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