BY DENNIS SEID
CORINTH – It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed every small town had a Coca-Cola bottling plant, its front windows allowing passersby to get a look at the machines mixing carbonated water with thick, sweet syrup and squirting the concoction into those famous green-tinted contoured glass bottles.
Today, there are fewer than 100 such companies left across the country, many of them folded into larger “bottlers” who mostly use aluminum cans and plastic bottles.
One of those is Corinth Coca-Cola Bottling Works Inc., which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
The company, founded by A.K. Weaver and C.C. Clark, serves an area stretching from Tupelo to Camden, Tenn., to just outside Memphis. Back when the business started, Coke was a nickel, but those days are long gone, much like watching it being bottled locally today.
“We stopped bottling as of four years ago,” said Sandy Williams, the company’s chairman, explaining that the company serves as a distributor for Coke products and other drinks. Corinth Coca-Cola has an interest in Gulf States Canners in Clinton, which churns out canned Coke products for the company and other distributors.
“That facility is very modern and can make about 1,000 cans a minute; it ships out about 23 million cases a year,” he said.
Also under the Corinth Coca-Cola umbrella is Tupelo Coca-Cola and Lexington (Tenn.) Coca-Cola. Having such an extensive footprint allows the company to serve small and large customers, from mom-and-pop independent stores to Wal-Mart Supercenters.
“We cover about a 125-mile radius from Corinth,” Williams said.
The company has owns a Dr Pepper franchise, which it bought in 1969. At the time, said Kenneth Williams, Sandy’s brother and company president, the Coca-Cola folks weren’t all that thrilled.
“But it all worked out in the end,” Kenneth said. “In fact, it strengthened our company and helped make us what we are today.”
The Williamses wouldn’t disclose how much volume they do, only admitting that the company has “a well-developed market.”
“We have some of the highest per capita consumption of any bottler in the nation,” Kenneth said.
The bottling operation was brought to Corinth by the Williamses’ grandfather, Avon Kenneth Weaver, and C.C. Clark, who bought a soda water plant in 1905. They weren’t able to get a Coca-Cola franchise in Corinth until two years later, but were granted a New Albany franchise in 1906.
Clark took over those operations and later opened one in West Point. The company acquired several other Coca-Cola bottlers in the region over the years and is known today as Northeast Mississippi Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and is part of C.C. Clark Inc.
Corinth, Northeast, and Meridian Coca-Cola Bottling are the only independent, family-owned Coke bottlers remaining.
In the mid-1980s Coca-Cola Enterprises was created by the Coca-Cola Co., which started combining company-owned bottlers with independent ones. Today, CCE represents some 80 percent of the North American bottle and can volume.
“They’ve been very successful at buying independent bottlers,” Sandy Williams said. “We’ve gone from about 600 when I first came into the business to about 70 today, which includes both independent and other bigger bottlers.”
But the Williams brothers aren’t interested in selling their operation.
“CCE bought a lot of good bottlers, but they also found others that weren’t as strong,” Sandy said.
“We do a good job,” Kenneth added.
And besides, there’s a fourth generation of the family in the business – Sandy’s son, Lee and Kenneth’s son, Ken, also have key roles in the growing operation.
More products to offer
The number of products the company distributes also has grown, from just a handful in the early days – about three – to more than 300 today.
For example, there are several different varieties of Coke – Classic, Diet, Vanilla, Cherry, Zero – to go along with Dr Pepper, Sprite, Dasani water, Minute Maid juices and other drinks that the company stocks.
“We’re always making room for more it seems,” Kenneth Williams said.
The number of employees has also grown over the years, to some 300 today scattered across the three locations.
General manager Larry Stanford said the company “delivers a lot more cases with half the number of trucks we used to have, but we also have 18-wheel tractor trailers that deliver four to five times what the old trucks used to.”
Corinth Coca-Cola still maintains about 75 trucks. The company also has another 25 trucks with its Refreshments Inc. division, which provides a full line of snack items.
“We have vending machines, and we sell snacks and soft drinks to institutions of all sizes,” Sandy Williams said.
The refreshments business actually serves a bigger market than the bottling business, but it’s viewed strictly as a complementary component of the overall operations, helping to diversify an already strong company.
The core business is still delivering Coca-Cola products.
“We’ve been very fortunate and it’s because of our employees and customers,” Sandy Williams said. “We feel like we still have a bright future ahead of us.”