In the 118 years since Chattanooga. Tenn. became the first place where Coca-Cola was ever bottled, Coca-Cola United’s commitment and ties to the city have persisted over generations and deepened through continued investment in the people, products, facilities and community that make up Coca-Cola Chattanooga. 

This includes investing $67 million in a new distribution center and regional headquarters in 2016 that marked the completion of a years-long process to upgrade United's Chattanooga facilities. They also have invested in remodeling local sales centers in Jasper and Amnicola to ensure their employees have a better place to come to work. 

We sat down with Darren Hodges, director of Coke United's Tennessee Valley Division and a local Chattanoogan, to learn more about what Coca-Cola United is up to in his hometown. 

Tell us about your history with working with Coca-Cola.

I started working at Coca-Cola in 1986. I first worked in loading and shipping in the warehouse and worked my way through college at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC), so I'm a local kid, born and raised. I've been with Coke United the whole time, and my role today is division director. I oversee four sales centers including Rome, Georgia; Jasper, Georgia; Scottsboro, Alabama; and, of course, Chattanooga. 

What does being a Coca-Cola bottler mean to you?

I feel enormous pride. I get to wear the most recognized symbol in the world every single day. I remember when I first came to work for Coca-Cola and I was going to college. I had this old, worn-out Coca-Cola jacket and loved wearing it. I would wear it everywhere. I think our associates feel that way about their jackets. I think theyjust want to be associated with this brand.

But ultimately, Coca-Cola is more than just a logo. It’s about saying to our employees and our community: "If you're interested in it, we're interested in it." We’ve taken that approach to ensure our community understands who we are and what we stand for.

As the original Coca-Cola bottler, Coca-Cola Chattanooga has historic roots. How do you maintain that legacy as you modernize? 

Simply put, it comes down to family. Coca-Coca United is a family business, owned by five generations of family members who have led our company since its foundation. But we also consider our employees family. We focus on the fact that we're the "World's First Coca-Cola Bottler." The community also helps us because they know the story.  ou'll see us run a billboard that says, "Hometown Bottler Since 1899" from time to time. We just keep it forefront with our employees and the community just saying that this is who we are, who we've been and who we continue to be.

'Coca-Cola is more than just a logo. It’s about saying to our employees and our community: 'If you're interested in it, we're interested in it.' We’ve taken that approach to ensure our community understands who we are and what we stand for.'

As you modernize and grow, how do you stay true to the original founding principles of Coca-Cola United?

We try to just be present. One of the things I've learned in this role is to show up, not just for your employees but in the community. And that’s one thing we’ve done. We're present. If you go to those facilities, you'll hear them say, "We're not used to having leadership come as often as you guys come." So, that's one way we do it is just to show up. 

The other thing we have done is invested in our company and the communities we serve. In Jasper, for example, we  remodeled our local sales office to ensure our employees have the equipment they needed to do their job. But we also sponsored local community events, like the Little League park and annual Christmas Parade. And by being present at all touch points, allows us to remind our employees and the local community about who we are and where we want to go. 

Can you talk about the importance of investments and how they are fueling your growth?

Growth and investment are incredibly important to us. We invested $67 million in a new facility that has allowed us to expand and modernize our operations. This also allowed us to create new employment opportunities for residents. The new facility also allowed us to create 50 new jobs in the community, with a total workforce of 280 employees now working at our new facility.   

We also overhauled our entire fleet to rear-load tractor trailers with pallet jacks, which allowed our employees to better find and deliver orders to our customers. Ultimately, these investments have helped us better serve our customers and ensure our employees are set up for success. 

What do you see as your greatest goal and greatest challenge for the future here in Chattanooga?

Our goal is to be here another 118 years. I think the challenges that come with that are continued growth and expansion. We we must continue to attract employees who want a career. And, we want to always focus on keeping our associates engaged and active in Coca-Cola United and in their communities.

Why do you think Coca-Cola United is so successful?

I'm a little biased, but I think that what makes United successful is investing in our people and then in our facilities and in our communities. If you do that, all those things will come back to make you successful if you do those things well.  But it must be genuine and come from the heart. Because people see through you if you're not doing it the right way.