The Coca-Cola Co.'s (KO) No. 2 executive, Steve Heyer, is stepping down after being passed over for the top job at the world's biggest beverage maker.

The announcement Wednesday said Heyer, the company's president and chief operating officer, plans to leave by mutual agreement after a transition period of several months.

Coke shares sank 83 cents to $51.78 in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange (search).

E. Neville Isdell (search), a veteran Coke system executive who was named last month to replace Doug Daft (search) as chairman and chief executive, said the decision followed discussions he had with Heyer over the past week.

"We agreed that Steve could best realize his aspirations by pursuing opportunities outside of the company and we both also want to see his important work during the past three years transitioned in a professional and mutually beneficial manner," Isdell said.

Spokeswoman Sonya Soutus would not say who initiated the decision for Heyer to step down.

"We are really not going beyond anything in the release," Soutus said.

Many analysts had expected Heyer to leave after he lost to Isdell to be Daft's replacement. However, Heyer said at a recent analysts' conference in New York that he was looking forward to working with Isdell. "I'm very optimistic we will be great partners," Heyer said at the Goldman Sachs consumer products conference.

Heyer's departure could signal even more top-level changes to come at Coke.

Analysts, former employees and Coke observers have said more changes could come under Isdell's watch as he seeks to restore confidence in a company that continues to post strong earnings but has had public image problems amid federal investigations and key executive departures.

The company has already seen its chief executive, general counsel, human resources boss and North America chief announce their departures in the last year.

Isdell is an Irish citizen who worked in the Coke system mostly in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for 35 years before retiring in 2001.