Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part four

RC Cola, or specifically, Rockford Nehi RC Cola was the beginning of my business education. This was where I learned to work. This was where I began to understand basic business concepts. Fred Adamany and Bud Longanecker were my mentors. From them I learned lessons in business and human behavior that I apply to this day.

We were a scrappy lot. Fred had taken over the business for Mrs. Haddad upon the death of her husband Roger. He told me he was in an interview with Lucky Foods as a comptroller when he got the message that her husband had died and that he left for home telling them that he had a family emergency. The rest is Rockford history. The firm under his direction became the largest soft drink operation in the city of Rockford, larger at one point than Coca-Cola and Pepsi put together.

This was accomplished by running a tight manufacturing ship, which engendered savings. These savings were then used to promote in the marketplace rather than taking additional profits to the bottom line. Growth was what it was all about. Pile it high and sell it cheap. Today it would be called growing your business. Then, nobody thought about that too much. The company grew into a mini-monster. Rockford Nehi was the only soft drink company to have a manufacturing facility in the city of Rockford; both Coke and Pepsi manufactured elsewhere and maintained only distribution warehouses. They didn’t have the market depth to support manufacture on site.

In addition, we had the best presence on the street of any beverage company, and the best service. Bud was well thought of by all elements of the grocery industry. His word was gold, and his drivers were the best paid and best trained on the street. There was nothing Bud wouldn’t do for a new customer including waxing the floor before a grand opening or paneling the back of a little store on Broadway, owned by my friend and now County Board member Jim Hughes. As a result, we controlled most of the supermarket shelf space in the city.

Bud had a philosophy about supermarket resets. First, you took care of everyone else. You made sure that every product was represented and had sufficient space that they did not run out. Then you took everything that was left. As a result, our resets were pretty much impervious to attack. I used to express this philosophy openly to the competition, but they never listened. They always went after what they wanted first and then forgot to do something for a competitor. This was easy meat when you wanted to knock out a set they had done. As a result, we controlled the shelf in all but one or two stores in the city and surrounding area.

My first route with the company was on Broadway. I took it over from a Jewish guy named, of all things, Myron (Beetle) Bailey. The route was not the best in the company, far from it, but it contained some of the best stores in the city. But it was the East Side, and the East Side was a Coca-Cola stronghold. The new Hilander at Charles and Alpine was one of those stores. So was the Dal Pra Pacemaker at Five Points. Both of these stores set the ads for their groups. This was to prove important in my progress with the company. Before long, I was lining up ads with Joe Castrogiovanni for the Hilander chain, and with Ken Nelson for the Pacemaker chain. Often, Bud would show up to book an ad, only to find out that I had beaten him to it hanging out with Kenny at the coffee machine after my delivery.

I got a powerful lesson in humility from Joe Castrogiovanni of Hilander. Coca-Cola had a promotion that involved giving away snowmobiles. I was scheduled to be in the Hilander ad that week. As usual, I pulled my truck in front of the store and unloaded about 160 cases of RC and Diet-Rite Cola. Then, when I went to Tony to get checked in, I was informed that I was no longer going to be in the ad. I had to load all the product back on the truck, leaving no room to pick up the empties. I tried to negotiate coming back for the empties, but to no avail.

There was a wall behind the store where you could stack empties and then climb up to throw them on the roof of the truck. In the process of doing this, I cut my hand. Leaving the store, I saw the Coca-Cola supervisors hauling in the shiny new snowmobile and building the display around it. I couldn’t help myself—I told Joe that I hoped he enjoyed his new snowmobile. He told me it was his store, that he would decide what display he was going to run, and that I could get out and never come back. The company took Hilander off my route.

Months later, I was sitting in the vending department. Bud came up to me and asked how my route was doing. He already knew; it was probably the fastest growing route in the plant. He asked if I would like to have the Hilander back. I wanted it, of course—it made a difference of hundreds of dollars a week to my paycheck. Bud said that I would have to apologize to Joe. I told him I would, and did. I think Joe wanted me back, too. From that day on, we seemed to have a mutual respect. To this day, I refer to the Hilander when I check in drivers. They were all business, and that led to their success. They are sorely missed by this community as are the Logli stores. The chain groceries will never match up.

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.

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