Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 10

After quitting at RC Cola of Indianapolis, I searched for another job. I got a call from a headhunter about a job with Eastern Area Coca-Cola. The title of the position was merchandising manager. I flew out to New York and interviewed with my new immediate boss, Larry. I can’t for the world remember his last name. He liked me, and I had a second interview with his boss, the top man in Eastern Area Coke, Frank Morley. Before long, they offered me the position, and I moved to New York.

At Coke, I did a lot of the things I had been doing at Royal Crown. Coke USA was trying to install a couple of computer programs that involved market analysis, and I had primary responsibility for these. But before long, my new bosses discovered that I had an ability to read markets, and they began to use me primarily in this way. Larry liked the fact that I had plant and route experience and could talk to the bottlers in a knowledgeable manner (unlike the usual MBA grads straight out of school, who knew nothing about the soft drink industry that Coke liked to hire). The bottlers liked it too, and responded well to me. Before long, I was writing market introductions.

While I was there, Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke. Before this time, their market category entry was Tab, the No. 1 selling diet soft drink. We had a big kick-off meeting at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The Rockettes did their famous kick line. Roberto Goyzwetta, the CEO, stood on stage and announced that by the end of the year, they expected Diet Coke to supplant Tab completely. This was some of the worst marketing I had ever seen. It was the introduction for me to the Coca-Cola company as the most poorly run company for which I ever worked. When we introduced RC100 at Royal Crown, we had had an increase in Diet Rite nationally of 15 percent. Here was a company deliberately destroying the No. 1 brand in the category. What were they thinking about?

At Eastern Area Coke, they had about 65 employees to administer the sale of about 400 million 8 oz. case equivalents. At Royal Crown, in my capacity as field sales person to the company plants, I had been responsible for about 350 million. The only additional purpose served by this enormous staff was chain calls. At RC the plant personnel did these. At Coke there was a staff of about 20 people who called on the chains, but that still left 40 or more people to do what I had done at RC, basically the relationship thing with the bottlers.

We had a computerized shelf maintenance program. We would take historical information and feed it into a computer program that would then allow us to plot a shelf set. This was computer in its infancy. You had to be online with the mainframe, General Electric Information Services, to do any work. After only a few months with the company, I conducted a national symposium on its use. I was the only person who had bothered to learn how to use it. It wasn’t long before I discovered that all the reports of the program were faulty. There was a report that showed negative profit. This would only be possible if someone had brought product back to the store. I was told to ignore this.

With my friend Rich from Philadelphia, we used the shelf program to set some of the major chains. One of the hardest things I had to do was to take RC 100 off the shelf in all of the New York Pathmark stores. On the other hand, Rich and I paid our salaries for several years on the additional load in, more than 100 cases per store, times more than 900 stores. The online bills for the computer time were astronomical, often $30,000 or more a month. I suggested to the top boss, Frank Morley, that he give me a leave of absence to develop the same thing on a PC. I was told to stay with the program. Coke wasn’t open to many new ideas.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 4-10, 2005, issue

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