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Education helped alumnus "pop" to the top

R. Fenton-May
Decorative photo of coke

Chemical engineering alumnus R. Fenton-May made it possible to "share a Coke and a smile" in many countries around the world. Fenton (MS, '68, PhD '71) recently retired from his position as director of operations development for the Coca-Cola Company. For nearly seven years he managed resources for the start-up or transition of new Coca-Cola manufacturing and distribution operations worldwide.

This London-born engineer went to high school in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland before coming to Madison for his graduate work.

"I arrived at the university with the intent to work in the area of pollution control, and ended up working on a project that led to a very practical process for producing a protein concentrate from cheese whey, a joint project between the departments of chemical engineering and food science," said Fenton. "Coca-Cola was interested in putting my research into industrial practice, so my advisor arranged for me to consult with the company while I was a graduate student."

As a result, while completing his thesis, Fenton helped to build a Coca-Cola plant in Brazil to produce a spray-dried whey protein concentrate for incorporation in a new beverage.

"When I completed my PhD, it just seemed appropriate to continue in this line of work, so I joined the Coca-Cola Company," said Fenton. "I stayed with them all my working career."

Fenton went to work for Coca-Cola in various research and administrative positions in the seventies. "During a brief period in administrative technical management, I worked with the great leader who was to become chairman, the late Mr. Roberto Goizueta, and he taught me much about business," said Fenton. "He put me in charge of the worldwide quality control department in 1976.

"I'd like to think that my training in Madison — particularly the analytical side of what I'd learned in chemical engineering — prepared me well for that position," said Fenton. "We ran one of the first automated labs for analyzing quality samples from around the world."

Four years later, his education in Madison again led to an industrial application of his research experience. Coca-Cola was interested in making soybean milk, and Fenton's cheese whey research was a perfect fit. He was subsequently named vice president and technical manager of Coca-Cola Central Pacific in Hong Kong. In this position, Fenton led a team that helped to build 15 new bottling plants and expand 29 others throughout Southeast Asia, along with management of development of the supporting infrastructure in raw materials and packaging materials.

Fenton was promoted to president of Coca-Cola China Ltd. in 1986 and managed development of the company's business in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. Under his guidance, the company grew to produce more than 100 million cases of soda per year in China. After fourteen years in Asia, he returned to the United States in 1993 to serve in his last position before retirement. That position took him on significant development activities in Russia (coast to coast), Venezuela and India.

However, as Fenton explains, his retirement still involves "40 percent work, 30 percent community service and 30 percent family time." From investing in e-commerce start-ups, to developing a project in China to upgrade water quality in Chinese villages, to managing a family reunion in New Zealand (where his sister and her family live), to vacationing in Tuscany with his friends, Fenton doesn't have any plans to slow down.


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