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The real thing

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. January 30, 2015
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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From high school football to the higher echelons of Corporate America, Bob Tufts says one theme stands out in the story of his life: He overachieved.

He was told he was too slow and skinny to excel at football, then he went on to start at a Division I college team for three years. He grew up in a blue-collar home, and began his corporate life driving a soda truck. But he capped his business career in a senior executive position with a direct line to the CEO of a global business icon, Coca-Cola.

“I always overachieved,” Tufts says. “I always found a way. It's been an amazing life.”

Tufts retired from Coca-Cola in 2007, after 27 years. Tufts and his wife now split time between two residences on the Gulf Coast, including a Lido Key condo, and a home in New Hampshire. Tufts, 65, recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his humble childhood and career.

Humble beginnings: One of eight children, Tufts was born in West Point, N.Y., the son of a career military man who later became an entrepreneur. “We were a blue-collar family,” says Tufts. “We moved around quite a bit.”

Foot speed: Tufts got into sports in high school, when the family settled in Salem, Mass. He earned a football scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston, where he played tight end for three years. The first person in his family to go to college, Tufts had a few calls to try out for the National Football League after he graduated. But the difference in speed between the levels caught up to him. Says Tufts: “I was dead on arrival.”

Hard work: Tufts was a football coach/teacher/painter for the first seven years of his post-college life. In 1973, for example, the year after he graduated college, he was an assistant coach at Northeastern, taught fifth and sixth grade at a local elementary school and painted houses over the summer. He made $13,000 that year. “The coaching life was killing me,” says Tufts. “It was too much time away from home, and I wasn't making any money.”

Early going: When Tufts turned 30 in 1980 he made good on something a fellow coach told him about getting into business. “He was always telling me, 'Bobby, you are a born salesman,'” Tufts recalls. Through contacts with that coach, Tufts landed an interview with the regional office of Coca-Cola in Boston. The hiring manager told Tufts the only way to advance at the company was to start at the bottom and drive a truck. Tufts took the job, thinking he would stay five years.

Fast rise: Tufts discovered he was so good at connecting with people and building a book of business, that in three years he was named vice president of sales and marketing of the Boston office. He was given a company car and other perks, such as tickets to take clients to Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots games. “It was crazy,” says Tufts.

Frequent flier: Tufts was on the corporate fast track by 1990, when he moved to Atlanta to work at the Coca-Cola headquarters. He worked his way up to division president of global sales, where he oversaw a few multibillion-dollar accounts, such as Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven. He flew all over the world, supervised vice presidents, oversaw a floor of employees and reported directly to Coca-Cola CEOs, including Douglas Daft and E. Neville Isdell. Says Tufts: “No one has ever gone that far at Coke starting on a truck.”

Shelved ego: Tufts says his management philosophy was to combine hiring smarter people, ones he calls brainiacs, with giving people space to make their own mistakes — and successes. “I was always interested in getting my people promoted,” says Tufts. “I wanted everyone around me to do better. By managing this way, I always got promoted.”

Stay calm: Tufts says he was a patient manager, and he tried to avoid knee-jerk decisions without knowing all the facts about a situation. That also helped defuse stressful times. He remembers younger employees would sometimes rush through something just to say they finished it. “I wasn't trying to do anything quick,” says Tufts. “People knew our projects would get done.”

Good works: Tufts has followed several life passions since he retired, including golf, tennis and boating. For a time he considered running for office. He's also volunteered for a wide range of organizations, from going to Cambodia multiple times to work with children's assistance groups to a scholarship committee for Ringling College. “I'm the type of guy who takes a board position seriously,” says Tufts. “I don't just give money. I give sweat equity.”

Step up: Tufts has also volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters. He was paired up with a young boy from a broken home in Sarasota. Tufts has had weekly dinners with his “little,” now 18, for years. They've played pool together and gone to baseball games. Says Tufts: “I feel like I've really made a difference in his life.”


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