updated 2/19/2004 4:23:09 PM ET 2004-02-19T21:23:09

Coca-Cola Co. chairman and chief executive Doug Daft said Thursday he plans to retire at the end of the year, citing his "own personal wishes."

Daft did not elaborate on his decision in a statement issued by the company, the world's biggest soft drink maker. A company spokesman said Daft would not be available for further comment.

Daft said Coke has faced significant challenges since he was appointed in 1999 to the top position at Coca-Cola.

"Today our brands are stronger and our global production and marketing systems has been restored to health," Daft said in the statement. "I am proud of what we have accomplished."

But Atlanta-based Coke faces an ongoing criminal investigation by federal prosecutors into fraud allegations raised in a whistleblower lawsuit. The Securities and Exchange Commission also is investigating.

Daft did not say if that issue led to his decision.

He said he would assist the board of directors in its search for his successor. No timeframe was set for the process to be completed.

Todd Stender, an analyst with Crowell, Weedon and Co. in Los Angeles, said the news took him by surprise.

"He's had an uproad battle since he came in 1999," Stender said. "The company went through a restructuring for the five years he's been there. He had a difficult time integrating the company on a global basis. Now that the company is turning around it looks like he is ready to hand the reins over."

Stender added, "I don't feel anything regarding him exiting for any other reason."

Daft said the board will hire a search firm and will consider candidates from both outside and within the company, including president and chief operating officer Steve Heyer, Coke's No. 2 executive.

Coke also announced Thursday changes to its retirement policy affecting members of the board of directors.

The change will require directors who reach the age of 74 to submit a letter of resignation to the board. The letters will be reviewed and considered by the board at the time of their submission and annually thereafter.

Previously, directors were not permitted to stand for election to the board once they reached age 74.

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