Coca-Cola has appointed Muhtar Kent, one of its regional presidents, to a powerful new role overseeing the company’s international operation, putting him among the potential successors to Neville Isdell, chief executive.

Mr Isdell said the appointment would allow him to reduce his involvement in day-to-day operations and spend more time focused on long-term strategy.

But he insisted the issue of succession was “still way inthe future” and rejected the notion that Mr Kent, a close friend and ally, was being groomed to replace him.

“This doesn’t hasten the issue of succession,” Mr Isdell said in an interview. “No one is in the line of succession until they have proved they can do their existing job superbly.”

Mr Isdell said he chose to take a hands-on role after being appointed chief executive in 2004 as he sought to stabilise the company after years of disappointing performance.

But it was always his plan gradually to devolve operational responsibilities to senior executives once the company was on a more steady footing, he said.

Mr Kent, 53, was previously head of Coke’s sprawling NorthAsian, Eurasian and Middle East division, which includes Japan, China and Russia.

He started his career with Coke in 1978, but left the company in 1999 to run Turkey’s Efes Beverages Group before being brought back by Mr Isdell last year.

The two men worked closely together during the 1990s, opening up emerging markets for Coke in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mr Kent’s new job involves responsibility for all of Coke’s operations outside of North America and the five regional presidents who previously reported to Mr Isdell.

Interantional business accounts for more than 70 per cent of Coke’s beverage volume and nearly 80 per cent of operating profits.

Coke has become increasingly reliant on international growth – especially from emerging markets – as sales of soft drinks have slowed in the US.

Mr Kent’s move is the latest in a series of senior management changes at Coke since Mr Isdell took charge.

Other appointments have included those of Mary Minnick to a new role overseeing marketing, innovation and strategy, and Irial Finan, as president of bottling investments.

Mr Isdell, 62, said there would be “a number of internal candidates and there will be external candidates” when he eventually decides to step down.

In 1997, Mr Kent reached a settlement with the AustralianSecurities Commission over allegations of insider trading while he was managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil, a large Coke bottler.

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