The Coca-Cola man who had a vision

Craig Cohon got very near the top in selling fizzy drinks. Then he heard Bill Clinton speak and gave

The philanthropic itch hit Craig Cohon early. While most successful businessmen spend leisurely days of retirement showering their largesse on worthy causes and "giving something back", Coca-Cola's deputy division president for north-west Europe was only in his thirties when he gave up the corporate shilling to pioneer the world's first "respectable revolution".

The 38-year-old Canadian entrepreneur is the brains behind the London-based organisation Globalegacy, a heroically ambitious project to raise £400m to create jobs in impoverished urban communities across the countries of the G20.

The plan is to forge a global alliance of shareholders - from big businesses such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola to national governments and major charities like Oxfam and Greenpeace - to support the grass-roots organisations, public agencies and businesses based in each of these communities. Instead of asking the bodies for donations, Cohon wants them to make an investment of at least £1.5m - or the equivalent in full-time staff - over a ten-year period.

The money and expertise will go into a series of commercial ventures that will create jobs for the local community, and generate a reasonable return for investors. All additional profits will be ploughed back into local development. Initial investment will be about £20m for each neighbourhood project in Tower Hamlets (London), Toronto, Jakarta and Johannesburg. A local leader will be recruited to front each project and research the community's needs. Companies such as Tesco are being approached to support organic farming projects; BP and Shell will be asked for help with renewable energy; AOL Time Warner and Vivendi are targets for education and internet ventures.

Cohon has already attracted some gilded supporters. He has held a brainstorming session at Downing Street, discussed it with the Canadian finance minister, and Bill Clinton "continues to give advice". His Palm Pilot holds the home phone numbers of Bono and Peter Gabriel. Even the office awayday had a dash of glamour - it was hosted in Ealing Studios by the producer of sex, lies and videotape.

So how did a man who used to sell fizzy sugar end up trying to save the planet? The moment of epiphany came in 2000 when Bill Clinton addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos on the role of business in society: "I listened to the president of the most powerful country in the world, and he said: 'I'd like someone to share a vision for business and a vision for society.' And I felt he was talking right at me."

On that very day, in one of the many Hollywood moments that pepper Cohon's life, he quit his job and returned to London to seek inspiration. He emerged from his study six weeks later with a 200-page manifesto for Globalegacy. Typically - after securing seed funding from his former employer Coca-Cola and McDonald's, and putting in £200,000 of his own money - he decided to arrive with a big bang. Instead of hiring a couple of assistants for a year, he took on 18 people (MBA graduates, radical activists and development experts) for a sink-or-swim 12 weeks, during which time they developed a business model with 300 possible commercial ventures. They also consulted NGOs, academics and businesses, and brought together a network of more than 500 people to support the scheme.

His favourite maxim - "Nobody changed the world by thinking small" - seems to have been something of a house rule within the Cohon clan. In the late Sixties, his father abandoned a respectable law career to run a franchise from Ray Kroc, the owner of a small chain of hamburger restaurants in the US called McDonald's. Cohon Sr built the Canadian operation from nothing, and spent the rest of his career bringing the Big Mac to Russia. His son ingested this buccaneering business style at the dinner table.

Aged 23, Cohon Jr joined Coca-Cola as an area manager in Florida, hawking crates around pizza parlours and bars in an old station wagon. A disrespect for sleep and a military devotion to planning paid off - within months he was named 1989 Coke Salesman of the Year. He went on to become the first Coke man in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall - where he opened a $70m plant.

Cohon realises that getting NGOs, government departments and companies to tackle social exclusion together will be tough. Recent Whitehall meetings have borne out his fears: "They talk about 'joined-up government'. We get all the departments together in one room. And they write us a long note that says: 'We came together, there are many good things about the Globalegacy model, and we want you to continue our discussion on a department-by-department basis.'" Companies are no better.

Cohon sees national governments creating the policy goals and setting the framework, but thinks they need to develop more sophisticated ways of tapping the skills and resources of corporations and NGOs.

Big business also knows it must change: well-orchestrated media campaigns - over labour conditions, GMOs or environmental negligence - can wipe millions off the share price overnight. Public opinion often seems like an unguided missile, punishing the good and the bad alike, and many firms struggle to deal with ethical dilemmas, their efforts to show that they are "good citizens" seeming only to increase public cynicism.

Cohon argues that if companies want to defeat that cynicism, corporate citizenship will have to move away from single initiatives picked by company chairmen, and focus on real public-policy goals. This will mean investing in development agendas that are led by governments and NGOs rather than marketing departments.

The first Globalegacy project opens in Tower Hamlets, east London, this autumn. Cohon can expect to attract attacks from the left, which thinks that public goods should be delivered by governments alone, and from the right, which thinks that corporate citizenship is a distraction from the real business of making money. Critics will argue that, for all the A-Team zeal and seductive sales patter, it will be impossible to get companies, NGOs, foundations and governments to sign up - especially in a climate of global slowdown and widespread cost-cutting. And in spite of Cohon's claims about "bottom-up" solutions and his attempts to work with local partners, questions will be asked about how this globe-trotting business elite can understand those it wants to help.

Cohon won't stop hoping, though. With a final cinematic flourish, he describes the moment when the skewed priorities of his world hit home. While trekking high in the Tibetan mountains, he stumbled across a remote village where you could buy Coca-Cola. "If Coca-Cola can get up there, in the middle of nowhere, there must be some better way of delivering international development. There must be."

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre

Nominations are now open for the New Statesman-Centrica Upstart Awards 2002, rewarding best practice in social entrepreneurship and enterprise. For full details, see www.upstarts.org.uk