Coca-Cola UNITED’s CEO, John Sherman, was recently interviewed at the Birmingham Business Journal’s C-Suite event. Like everything the BBJ does, this was a wonderfully put-together event, and we wanted to share some of the most memorable moments from this great discussion.
Some of the most prevalent conversations centered around the damage and response to Hurricane Michael, our company’s significant growth, workforce development, what the future holds for Coca-Cola UNITED, our time in the Magic City, different challenges and opportunities we’re facing, and community outreach.
Hurricane Michael’s historic clash with the Florida panhandle affected thousands of families and businesses to different degrees. Unfortunately, Coca-Cola UNITED and thousands of its employees were included in these statistics. During the interview, John mentioned that 7 facilities and more than 3,000 people were impacted by the hurricane – with roughly 300 associates dealing with severe or total losses.
Fortunately, we’ve faced hurricanes before and we were prepared to provide relief. We had teams mobilized instantly to assist with food, fuel, water, restroom, and other needs. Employees from other Alabama and Florida locations were able to travel to Panama City to fill in production gaps and assist affected employees, who were also paid their recent wages in cash to assist with immediate needs. Most important of all is our Employee Relief Fund, which provides an application for tax-free grants, as well as corporate and associate donations, to boost recovery efforts to help our associates and their families restore normalcy in their day-to-day lives.
As John mentioned in the Birmingham Business Journal interview, Coca-Cola UNITED has seen massive growth since 2014 – with roughly 7,000 associates, 6 new facilities, and more than 100,000 customers being added to our business. Our leadership took direct steps from the very beginning to ensure that production and consumer happiness wouldn’t suffer due to the varying processes involved in our transition. Our team took a very hands-on approach that included discussions with every new employee and town halls to allow for communication, understanding and one-on-one assistance with regard to benefits, and for every individual to feel comfortable with the changes. During this time, our original employees did a fantastic job of keeping things running smoothly.
Two of the biggest things that made our growth successful were emphasizing our company culture and core values (Quality, Excellence, Integrity, and Respect), and understanding that not all growth is good. We’ve had very tempting opportunities present themselves in recent years that would have greatly expanded our company, but they were not the right decision to make at the time.
Coca-Cola UNITED is an avid supporter of workforce development and promoting from within our organization, and John details the process that enables workers to move up the corporate ladder and develop new skills. We’ve also had to keep up with the consistent technological developments that occur at an impressive speed. Providing the right training and educational courses is crucial for enabling our employees.
What the Future Holds
In addition to physical growth, much of our desired growth comes in the form of growing as a team. We want to provide opportunities for our employees to succeed and continue to create an atmosphere where all can prosper.
Another much discussed area that was brought up during the Birmingham Business Journal interview was automation, which we certainly utilize. However, as John stated, our business is about people, and we put them first. To sustain our business model to put people first-our associates, consumers, customers and community, in that order, it meant increasing the number of associates by 10-15% at every new location we acquired, which, in many cases, created new jobs in our local markets.
John had many positive things to say about the Magic City, noting its growth in recent years and how Birmingham’s youth no longer wants to immediately leave the city upon graduating. One of John’s only critiques was the need for a greater focus on providing more opportunities for our local members of the community to acquire the skills and education needed to create an effective workforce for companies like ours to thrive.
Challenges and Opportunities
Many of Coca-Cola’s challenges are also some of its biggest potential opportunities. As John stated in his interview, nearly half of the Top 100 fastest growing beverage brands didn’t exist a decade ago. This is certainly an increase in competition, but also allows us to be more innovative.
Another similar situation is the social changes that impact the soft drink energy, but the beverage industry is already working on becoming more responsible with calorie consumption with the Balanced Calorie Initiative. This is a challenge to companies in the industry to lower their consumer calorie intake by 20% by 2025, as well as to inspire a balance of exercise to consumption.
Coca-Cola UNITED has a strong history of community engagement, starting with our founder’s involvement in creating United Way, formerly Community Chest, and Children’s Hospital. As John points out, though, Birmingham is no longer our only community and we’ve responded by providing budgets and support to employees impact their surrounding areas. We also have a proud legacy of supporting HBCUs, Birmingham Education Foundation and various non-profit organizations focused on improving the quality of life, such as American Red Cross, YWCA, Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club and many more.
Coca-Cola Company Compared to Coca-Cola UNITED
John ended his interview discussing the different roles a bottling company like UNITED has compared to Coca-Cola Company. The key difference being the bottling companies are responsible for the production, distribution, sales, and marketing for their specific areas. For us, that area includes 7 states from Louisiana to Georgia and historic Coca-Cola sites like the first Coca-Cola bottling company in the world, Chattanooga, the development site of the original formula in Columbus, and Coke’s hometown of Atlanta – and we love every moment of it!