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Coke Associates Shine Through Atlanta's SnowJam

By:  Unbottled Staff Feb 10, 2014
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Atlanta During the Snowjam

Severe winter weather continues to create serious problems across much of the U.S. Record snowfall, icy roads and waves of flight cancellations are among the issues hampering people from the plains states to the Northeast. Coke's hometown of Atlanta also made national news when snow and ice snarled traffic for several days recently. Stories are trickling in about how employees responded and helped their coworkers and fellow Atlantans.

Snow covers an AOC parking lot

Snow covers an AOC parking lot after the storm.

Sheltering Employees

As snow began falling at Coke's Atlanta Office Complex (AOC) around noon on Tuesday, Jan. 28, hundreds of employees began leaving in an effort to get home ahead of the storm. Many others decided to wait it out, hoping the weather would clear.

It didn’t. As a result, more than 200 employees spent the night in their offices or other areas of the AOC, transforming the complex into a makeshift safe haven. Security and facilities teams, food service staff and department managers acted quickly and took excellent care of their unplanned guests, associates say.

Debbie MacLean, manager of HealthWorks, the on-campus gym and well-being facility at the AOC, offered up the space on two consecutive nights for employees who couldn’t get home. MacLean, who spent the first night on the floor on thin blankets made from recycled t-shirts, handed out the gym's exercise mats so colleagues could get some rest. HealthWorks offers sneakers and workout clothes to its members as a standard amenity. That perk came in handy in a new way during the storm – as several stranded employees came by asking to borrow shoes so they could walk home. MacLean didn’t hesitate.

Debbie MacLean

Debbie MacLean, manager of HealthWorks, shown with mats used by associates to sleep on during the storm. MacLean stayed at the facility for two nights to make it available to stranded employees.

Throughout the day, Coke's security and facilities groups monitored the campus to ensure associates’ safety and made intercom announcements to let people know they could take showers at HealthWorks and that the company's Food Services group was also working to help. At the cafeteria, staffers put together a continental breakfast on Wednesday, Jan. 29, and offered a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage the following morning for those who had to spend two nights at work.

“People were grateful,” said MacLean, who was finally able to leave some 48 hours after the storm set in. “I was glad HealthWorks was here and we could provide for people and that people thought of us to come up here and take advantage of it.”

“This was a group effort in every sense of the word,” she said with pride. "From security, to food service, to our maintenance people – it was a big family. Everyone was doing what they could.”

Office beanbag chairs provided a makeshift sleeping area

His office beanbag chairs provided a makeshift sleeping area for Dave Pendery.

Other employees, like David Pendery, director of user experience and content services for Global Business Services (GBS), spent Tuesday night in their offices. He was in a meeting Tuesday afternoon, emerging occasionally to check the skies. Around 6 p.m., as thick traffic built up across the region, he decided to keep working and head home once roads cleared.

By 9 p.m., when Pendery finally left the office, he found local interstates completely blocked, and returned to the AOC to ride out the storm. He pulled in some beanbag chairs normally used for meetings and fashioned a bedroom in his office.

He praised the quick, effective work of his fellow employees. “The facilities people were great. Debbie MacLean stayed there all night. We went down to the cafeteria, and they had a nice setup. Obviously the food service staff had worked through the night,” Pendery said.

Pendery worked the following morning and was finally able to make it home around lunchtime, while roads had slightly improved. “I was very impressed with the way everything was handled here,” he said. “It just felt like there was a strong sense of care for the associates.”

Ambassador Pin Points the Way

After Shailendra Thakur, a senior group IT manager, left the AOC on Tuesday, he had to pull off the highways and take shelter in a local hotel. Around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, he picked up a voice message – from Mumbai, India – about a systems problem requiring immediate attention. Thakur cranked up his laptop and mobile. The computer had almost run out of power, so he shut down all of its mobile applications, except the mobile chat function, so he could work through the problem.

By daybreak, Thakur, and scores of strangers had already camped out for hours in the hotel lobby. Thakur was continuing to work, but desperately needed to charge his laptop. As he pondered what to do, he noticed a woman nearby wearing a heart-shaped Coca-Cola Ambassador pin on her coat.

“I asked her, ‘Ma’am, do you work for Coke?’” Indeed she did.

“Immediately, we started acting like it was a family thing. She was glad to help,” Thakur said.

The colleague, Irene LeCourt, a GBS communications manager, had also only gotten as far as the hotel.

“Thakur was happy to see someone from Coca-Cola, and there were several of us all stranded there,” LeCourt said. “Thakur’s phone and laptop were dead. I gave him my charger and he was able to get his laptop up. It was great.”

Thakur set up a mobile office in the hotel lobby and got the systems back on track for his team. He also made a new connection in LeCourt.

“LeCourt is so cool. We chatted a lot,” Thakur said, reflecting on how glad he was to see LeCourt, and how the simple Coca-Cola Ambassador pin made it happen. “[That pin] was a great point of contact.”

Brainstorming for Teachers and Bus Drivers

Local school systems were among those hit hardest by the fast-moving storm. They closed as the snow came, and many school buses got out to take students home, but several ended up trapped on the roads. The drivers, after idling for hours, eventually had to bring hundreds of children back so they could spend the night in school gyms, cafeterias and hallways.

As the teachers, administrators and bus drivers worked to keep students safe. Adrienne White, finance manager, and an active school volunteer in her personal life, was moved by the stories of quick action by school staff.

“As I saw all these stories, it just dawned on me that we’ve got to do something to recognize and show appreciation for them,” White said of teachers and bus drivers.

White saw a TV news report about an elementary school in Northwest Atlanta, where children spent the night on mats. “The buses didn’t get there,” White said, thinking about parents who were also stuck on roads and unable to reach their children. “I can’t imagine what it would be like.”

White had a brainstorm. After this was all said and done, she thought, it would be a great idea to see if local businesses could help support the school staff in some way. She emailed several Atlanta-area spas and wellness centers, asking if they would be willing to do something. One local spa agreed, setting up a program via its Facebook page to provide free massages and other services to bus drivers, teachers and administrators.

White says she was thrilled to help the community get involved in helping to say thanks to the schools for their efforts.

“I was absolutely elated that regular citizens could reach out to the businesses to benefit people they don’t even know,” she said. “Whether we have children or no children in the schools, the work that (educators) do is invaluable. They are taking care of the next generation. That’s our most precious asset.”

An Unforgettable Orientation

Raghav Balasubramanian won’t soon forget his new hire orientation. Balasubramanian, global template and technology lead for our Bottler Services Group, started three months ago. On the morning of the storm, he attended meetings at the AOC and toured a nearby bottling plant.

As the initial flurries turned heavier and the roads iced over, he and the other new hires camped out at the visitors’ lounge of the AOC. Marketing colleagues gave him blankets and he was able to use the HealthWorks facilities. He was already excited to be working for the Coca-Cola, he says, but the experience of seeing his new colleagues and organization respond so quickly, and with genuine camaraderie, made an impression.

“Everything from security team members helping out with food and providing access to lounge areas, to fellow associates making coffee and giving me blankets to stay warm,” Balasubramanian said, “it all just confirmed my belief that I am indeed working for the best company in the world.”

Office Hero Turns on Hospitality and Heat

For Virginia Brock and a group of fellow motorists shivering in their cars, an office complex parking lot near the highway became a ticket to warmth.

By 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night, Brock, a project coordinator in Coke's Corporate Public Affairs & Communications group, had already spent eight hours on the road, traveling only 10 miles. She was running out of gas. The brightly lit parking seemed a place to get some sleep and continue her journey when roads improved.

One by one, other cars pulled up as well, Brock said. Around 10:30 p.m., a man who only identified himself as “Dan” emerged from the complex. He’d seen the cars pulling in and wanted to check on them. One of the stranded drivers asked him if she and her family could go into the office to warm up. Dan looked around, seeing all the other cars, Brock said, and invited everyone inside.

“We all looked at each other and smiled,” Brock said. “No words could describe how grateful we were to be inside and not be alone.”

Dan handed out snacks and Coca-Cola products and shared them with the group. He also kept everyone up-to-date on local traffic reports.

Drivers kept arriving, Brock said, including an out-of-town couple who showed up at 5 a.m. Wednesday. “The driver was diabetic and so was his wife. He was so cold, so we put the heater by him.”

Though the group spent the night, sharing camaraderie and their individual stories, they never exchanged names. “We all sat together for hours with our coats, hats and gloves on, ready to leave at any time,” Brock explained. At daybreak, the group went their separate ways. Brock says the experience reiterated a kindness that prevailed during the storm.

“I am indebted to Dan and the wonderful people I met, and those who stayed in contact with me," she said. "It warms the heart to know in a crisis people truly do pull together.”