The American industrialist Asa Griggs Candler (1851–1929) was the founder of the Coca-Cola Company. He was not the inventor of Coca-Cola itself, but, as Sean Higgins would put it in Investor's Business Daily, he “essentially created the soft drink industry,” an innovation of even greater significance.
Rising to become one of Atlanta's leading citizens, Asa Griggs Candler came from modest rural origins. He was born on December 30, 1851, in Villa Rica, Georgia, 30 miles west of Atlanta. His father, Samuel Charles Candler, was a farmer and general-store owner as well as a canny salesman who became an agent for landowners leasing local tracts that they hoped would contain gold. He had six brothers and four sisters; one brother, Warren, became a Methodist bishop (Candler himself was a lifelong Methodist), one became a jurist on the Georgia Supreme Court, and one was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The family suffered during the scorchedearth attacks on northern Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, and Candler struggled as a young man. He took private medical courses but gave up on both college and the idea of a career in medicine. Instead, he headed for Atlanta in 1873. As legend has it, he had only $1.75 in his pocket when he left Villa Rica.
Arriving in Georgia's capital city, Candler hired on as a druggist at the pharmacy of George Howard, working until midnight on his first day with no pay in order to demonstrate his initiative. He married Howard's daughter Lucy in 1878, and the couple raised four sons and a daughter. By that time, Howard had opened a new shop, and Candler and a co-worker, Marcellus Hallman, scraped together the financing to purchase the original store. They were successful from the beginning, competing effectively with their former employer (who agreed in the interests of family harmony to smooth the rivalry over). Candler, with a young son and a daughter now added to the household, was also able to buy land on what was then the fringes of Atlanta, near what is now Little Five Points and not far from the present-day Candler Park.
Candler, like other pharmacists, tried to strike it rich by mixing and selling patent medicines, including one called Botanic Blood Balm. In the late 1880s, he sampled a concoction called Coca-Cola, a “brain tonic and Intellectual Soda Fountain Beverage” that was being advertised as a headache cure. Made from a sweet syrup mixed with soda water, it was the creation of John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist who had worked with Candler at Howard's shop before moving with Howard to his new location. Pemberton was now in poor health and had little energy to devote to marketing his product, but Candler liked the taste of Coca-Cola and observed that others shared his reaction and attested that it worked. He was intrigued and, as he later wrote (as quoted by Kathryn W. Kemp in God's Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola), the drink “was owned by parties unable to put it fairly before the people. I determined to put money into it & a little influence.”
As the name suggests, Coca-Cola contained cocaine, which was legal at the time. The drug was regarded with suspicion by many, however, and Candler, a religious man who did not even drink alcohol, ordered that the amount in the formula be sharply reduced. At first, flavoring derived from spent coca was used, and ultimately cocaine was eliminated from Pemberton's formula. A canny promoter, Candler capitalized on the mystery surrounding the product by asserting that it contained a secret ingredient, and this has remained a key part of Coca-Cola's marketing strategy ever since. The ingredient remains secret, although various old formulas have been discovered.
Candler's effort to expand sales of Coca-Cola led to an important innovation: he gradually refocused his marketing effort away from its medical benefits and promoted it as a refreshing drink. He gave away free barrels of Coca-Cola syrup to drugstores, pairing that move with wide distribution of free drink coupons. This strategy quickly gained him customers outside the Atlanta area: by 1895 Coca-Cola was sold in every state, and the following year Canada and Mexico were added to its territory. Between 1892 and 1900, Coca-Cola syrup sales increased over tenfold, from 35,360 gallons to 370,877 gallons.
As the Coca-Cola Company grew, Candler was able to diversify his financial portfolio, purchasing stock in expanding railroads and public utility companies. His greatest success proved to be in Atlanta real estate, which was experiencing a boom at the time. He developed the Druid Hills neighborhood in the northeast part of the city and hired famed New York landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to lay it out. The Candler Building, designed to house the growing Coca-Cola offices, was completed in 1906; at 17 stories, it was Atlanta's tallest building to date. After Coca-Cola outgrew that location and move again, Candler transferred Central Bank & Trust, which he had also founded, into the space. He eventually became one of the city's wealthiest individuals; as a senior citizen interviewed by Kemp recalled, when asking a friend for the loan of a nickel early in the 20th century, the friend responded, “Who do you think I am? Asa Candler?”
Coca-Cola has faced controversy over its healthfulness at many points in its history, a major one erupting in a 1909 federal court case as the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged that the drink was unhealthful. Their charge was legitimized in the public's mind by the beverages’ nicknames: “Coke” and, in the South, “dope,” evoking its early formulation. The government pointed not only to the possible presence of cocaine but the drink's high caffeine content; Coca-Cola admitted no wrongdoing while stating that the drink's formula had been altered over the years. The case wended its way through lower courts until 1917, when a Tennessee federal court ordered the Coca-Cola Company to pay court costs but essentially exonerated it. The “Coke” name was not trademarked until 1945.
At home in Atlanta, Candler became known for his public-spiritedness as well as for his great wealth. In 1907 he helped forestall a real estate panic by making large land purchases in the city and later returned some of the profits from those purchases to the original owners. During World War I, when the price of cotton crashed, he lent money to growers, accepting stored cotton as collateral, and built a 40-acre warehouse to house excess cotton stocks. When price once again rose, farmers were able to sell the cotton and repay their loans.
Such measures made Candler extremely popular in Atlanta, and in 1916 he was elected as the city's mayor on a reform platform. He removed himself from day-to-day operations in most of his companies, remaining in control only of Central Bank & Trust. Streamlining the operation of city departments, and sometimes loaning his own money for infrastructure improvements, he reversed a $150,000 municipal deficit and left Atlanta with a $43,000 surplus when he left office. His most visible role came when he supervised reconstruction efforts after a major fire in 1917, and he was credited by many for ensuring the city's fast recovery.
Candler sold the Coca-Cola Company in 1919 for $25 million (about $342 million in 2015 dollars). In his later years he devoted much of his wealth to philanthropic enterprises, granting land to Emory University, which his four sons attended. In thanks for the land on which the university's Atlanta campus now stands, the Candler School of Theology was established in 1914. Candler also made large gifts to his Methodist church, Wesley Memorial in Atlanta.
Lucy Candler died in 1919, the same year he divested himself of the Coca-Cola Company. Now in his late 60s, Candler became engaged to a wealthy New Orleans woman, but he broke the engagement and was sued (without success) for breach of promise. In 1922 he married stenographer Mae Ragin, but this relationship too was unhappy, and he initiated but eventually dropped divorce proceedings. At the end of his life, Candler gifted much of his fortune to Emory University; his grants there totaled $8 million (more than $100 million today). A stroke left Candler facing a series of lengthy hospitalizations, and he died in Atlanta on March 12, 1929.
Kemp, Kathryn, God's Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola, Mercer University, 2002.
Investor's Business Daily, March 19, 2007, Sean Higgins, “Coke's Candler Was Real Thing: Drink Up,” p. A4; August 17, 2010, Patrick Cain, “Coke's Candler, the Real Thing,” p. A3; March 8, 2012, Bahar Sharareh, “Candler, the Real Thing When It Came to Coke: Sell It,” p. A3; August 13, 2015, Kerry Jackson, “Asa Candler, the Man behind Coca-Cola's Pop Expand,” p. A3.
Coca-Cola Company website, http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/ (July 28, 2016), “The Chronicle of Coca-Cola: the Candler Era.”
Famous Entrepreneurs website, http://www.famous-entrepreneurs.com/ (July 28, 2016), “Asa Candler.”