By Susan Elzey
Danville Register & Bee
Published: February 20, 2011
Traveling all over the world and having all the free Diet Coke you could ever want - if it sounds like an enviable life, it's one that Mary Riddle lives.
Riddle, a Java native, is a vice president of Coca-Cola Co. and director of the Flavor Ingredient Supply Division. She will speak at The Wednesday Club at 1002 Main St. at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Her presentation, entitled "Five Words That Made the Difference," will cover her journey from a little town in Pittsylvania County to the big city of Atlanta and a high-powered job with Coca-Cola.
Riddle, a Chatham High School graduate, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1970 and headed to Atlanta without even job offer and with a blank resume in hand. She found her first job with Coca Cola.
"I was a junior, junior, junior secretary," Riddle said. "I've worked hard, and now I'm a vice president."
As such, Riddle is a board-elected vice president.
Around the world
In her job, she is responsible for the confidential ingredients that go in Coke products from the time the raw ingredients are put in the ground throughout the world until the product goes out the door to a waiting customer.
And it's no use to ask her about what makes Coke taste so good - she has signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company and keeps its secrets well.
On a recent day before a trip to Argentina, Riddle spent the day with a consultant to plan for the trip.
"We went over production and cost figures and the ego matters of the competing suppliers," she said. "I spend a lot of time staying up-to-date on various markets and relationships."
She said she and other Coke officials have "absolutely" been keeping track of what has recently been happening in Egypt and activated contingency plans, as they do with whatever is happening throughout the world.
"We have a group that does nothing but send in daily reports of places in the news from strikes to diseases in the citrus groups in South Africa," she said.
In her work, there are few places Riddle hasn't traveled. She works in Europe, Asia, Africa, India, China, South America, England and most everywhere else.
Lots of memories
Riddle has been with the company through several challenges. She remembers clearly the public relations crisis in 1986 when Coca Cola decided to change the taste of Coke.
"There was an unbelievable outpouring of emotion from the American public. It was incredible," she said. "And the taste change was secondary. Americans said, 'How can you change my Coke?'"
She said although that challenge lasted only three months, it seemed like three years.
Riddle also knows the real reasons behind some of Coca Cola's decisions, such as the reason behind the name "Coke Zero."
"Coke Zero is marketed to young males and is named in response to men not liking to say 'diet' but not minding to say 'zero,'" she said.
Life at home
Riddle even has Coca Cola to thank for meeting her husband, Bill.
"I'm married to the most wonderful man I can imagine," she said. "He is happily retired and takes care of everything at home. We love our home in Atlanta. We have two acres of land and three dogs. Bill has said so many times for me not to retire until I'm ready."
The couple gets back to Pittsylvania County at least three times a year where much of her family still lives and where she also serves on the Board of Trustees at Averett University.
Even as Riddle said she "absolutely" loves what she does, Pittsylvania County will always be home.
"I've always felt so fortunate to have grown up in Java surrounded by aunts and uncles in that rural upbringing," she said. "Now that I've seen much of the world, I'm so grateful to be from Java."
And how much Coke, or her favorite Caffeine-free Diet Coke, does she get to drink on the job?
"There are Coke and Dasani machines everywhere," she said. "You can drink as much all day as you can contain."
The Wednesday Club program is free and open to the public.
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