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CEO: Coca-Cola can grow in tough times

DULUTH - Coca-Cola Co. sees a chance to increase its market share during the economic slowdown and doesn't plan to waste the opportunity, the chief executive of the world's largest beverage maker told shareholders Wednesday.

Muhtar Kent said at the company's annual meeting that Coca-Cola was poised to grow in these tough times as it did during the Great Depression.

'There's no reason we cannot apply the same courage to navigate through the current crisis,' Kent told shareholders. 'Indeed, we will not waste this crisis.'

Kent said it was possible that Coca-Cola would miss its growth targets a quarter or two this year. He did not say why, though on Tuesday the company said the strong dollar could mean missed targets this year. But Kent vowed that the company is committed to meeting or exceeding those targets over time.

He said the Atlanta-based business sees opportunities in pushing its top brands like Coca-Cola in emerging markets like China and in ones where it has solid footing, such as the U.S. and Mexico.

The company is also pushing a new 16-ounce, 99 cent version of its top brands, meant to be seen as a bargain from its 20-ounce bottles that cost between $1.25 and $1.50.

On Tuesday, Coca-Cola said its first-quarter profit fell 10 percent because of one-time costs and the dollar's strength. The company said consumers overseas bought more of its products in the three-month period ending in March, but North American volume fell as consumers pulled back on their spending.

Investors were concerned about the drag of the U.S. dollar, which hurts companies that do business overseas as it gains strength.

The meeting at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth marked the final change of power between outgoing chairman Neville Isdell and Kent, who took over as CEO from Isdell in July. The meeting marked Isdell's last as chairman.

As in previous years, the gathering drew protesters. They were kept about 150 yards from the front entrance of the conference center. A rolling billboard attached to a truck with the words, 'Unthinkable, Undrinkable' on the side passed through the parking lot every few minutes.

Inside the meeting, a few hundred shareholders gathered. Several addressed the board, some of them vocal, yelling questions past their allotted time and attempting to disrupt the meeting. The critics have been concerned about Coca-Cola's human rights record and business practices abroad.

The company was asked again about the potential that it would follow a move earlier this week by rival PepsiCo Inc. to buy its two biggest bottlers. PepsiCo says the $6 billion deal will help it be more nimble as it navigates a slumping industry.

Kent said, as he did on Tuesday, that Coca-Cola felt its franchise relationship with its bottlers was strong and was helping the company save money and operate well.

Other shareholders asked about executive pay and the makeup of the board, urging the board to have younger members. They also asked about the company's use of water and the location of annual meetings, asking that they be held in Atlanta more often.

All directors were approved for another one-year term, while Ernst & Young was approved as the company's independent auditor. None of the four shareholder proposals up for a vote was approved, though about 36 percent of shareholders who voted favored a say-on-pay proposal and nearly 29 percent favored a proposal to have Coca-Cola's chief executive and chairman positions held by separate people, according to a final tally.

Shares of Coca-Cola fell 16 cents, or 0.4 percent, to close at $42.93 on Wednesday.