Muhtar Kent, right, is stepping down as CEO and will be replaced by COO James Quincey

Muhtar Kent, right, is stepping down as CEO and will be replaced by COO James Quincey

The Coca-Cola Co - which invests heavily in its Christmas associations - threw some festive cheer to the stock market on Friday when it announced the impending departure of CEO Muhtar Kent.

Shares in the company finished the day almost 3% higher on the back of the move, which will see Kent go upstairs to chair the board from the start of May. The share price rise does not mean investors haven't enjoyed Kent's handling of the business over the past eight years. But with change comes opportunity, especially as the incoming CEO, current COO James Quincey, is seen as more of a hawk on M&A than his forthcoming predecessor.

Quincey can "accelerate KO's growth even further through stepped-up acquisitions over the next several years", said Wells Fargo's Bonnie Herzog, who called the "youthful" 51-year-old "the right person to lead Coca-Cola into the future".

"We are very excited that Quincey has been named to succeed Muhtar as the CEO and believe he will bring a refreshing approach to running the business," Herzog added.

Meanwhile, Cowen and Co analyst Vivien Azer is impressed with the access Quincey has afforded the investor community in his time as COO and feels his "leadership style will benefit the company going forward".

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Azer also said Quincey has been more willing than Kent to "address the challenges facing the CSD industry" as consumers increasingly turn away from traditional sugary soft drinks. She said despite sugar fears, "the consumer has not rejected sugary beverages outright", and the analyst predicts Quincey may be more willing to buy the remaining portion of energy drinks maker Monster Beverage Corp that Coca-Cola doesn't already own. "We consistently see outsized growth for sugary beverage categories that also offer consumers a functional benefit to help justify that sugary beverage occasion," Azer said.

Reading the runes

As always with these big executive shuffles, there is a certain amount of conjecture going on. With Quincey's ascension not due until May, no one is quite sure in what direction he will take the company. People are relying on educated guess work.

However, the tea-leaf reading went into overdrive last week as - along with Kent's departure - Coca-Cola announced the exit from its board of Howard Buffett. Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett, who owns a good chunk of Coca-Cola stock through his Berkshire Hathaway group.

While Howard's departure could simply be down to his stated desire to spend more time on his charity work, analysts were more cynical about the move. Bernstein said it could signal that Berkshire Hathaway is about to dump its Coca-Cola stock (Howard is on the board at his father's company and, as a Coca-Cola board member, would have represented a potential conflict of interest to a sale).

That would free up Anheuser-Busch InBev, in which Berkshire Hathaway is also an investor, to turn away from a rumoured Coca-Cola acquisition and purchase another soft drinks company, potentially PepsiCo. Berkshire Hathaway could not own stock in both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

"We will be watching Berkshire Hathaway's positions very carefully as this may weigh further on Coca-Cola in the medium-term," Bernstein said.

So in all, it will be business as usual for Coca-Cola despite the executive overhaul, as the money men continue to pull the strings. Quincey is heading for the top spot, but the future of the company may well be out of his hands.