When Cole A. Gebhardt joined the Minnesota Army National Guard at age 18, he was the first in his immediate family to enlist in the military.

“I joined the military to give myself some direction and to help with schooling,” he said.

Cole leading his squadron

Gebhardt spent 11 months in Kosovo and 22 months in Iraq between 2004 and 2007.

He was called to active duty first in the U.S., to protect the nation's airports after September 11th. Later, he was deployed overseas, spending 11 months in Kosovo, and another 22 months in Iraq between 2004 and 2007.

After leaving the service as a staff sergeant and infantry squad leader, Gebhardt joined The Coca-Cola Company in June 2011 as a maintenance manager in the North America Group. The Elmsford, N.Y.-based employee is one of approximately 3,000 U.S. veterans currently working in a variety of Coca-Cola roles across all 50 states.

Transitioning from a combat environment like Iraq takes time. “It was a full-year process for me to be ready to go back to school,” said Gebhardt, who completed his bachelor’s degree in business and communications studies at the University of Minnesota and was recruited by Coke at a campus career fair.

“I didn’t know what my military career and skills would translate to,” he said. “But I feel like they translated well.”

He decided to work for Coca-Cola, in part, because of the company’s University Talent Program (UTP), which placed him into a two-year accelerated management training program within the supply chain organization.

The UTP opportunity showed Coke’s willingness to invest in his development, he said, and to prepare him to take on greater responsibilities that would leverage his overall experience.

Similarities and Differences

“It’s definitely a big transition to put that ‘work face’ on,” Gebhardt said. “But in the end, you have the same goals: making sure your employees are being treated fairly, making sure their welfare is taken into consideration related to safety.”

Obviously, there is a difference between the military structure and the Coca-Cola structure. “In the military, I was the final word on decisions for the people I led,” he said. To lead people in a corporate setting, “you really have to develop relationships with employees and gain their trust, first.”

According to Gebhardt, company leaders provided helpful mentorship, and have been supportive as he goes through the Veterans Administration process. “Plant leadership has been open to giving me time off to handle what I’ve needed to handle,” he added. “They’ve been very understanding of the special circumstances that someone coming from the military might have.”

‘Going in the Right Direction’

Gebhardt, who marched in the New York City Veteran’s Day parade on Nov. 11, often assists Coke’s HR team at military career fairs. He applauds the company for these recruiting efforts, and for leveraging internal resources like him.

Cole in parade

Gebhardt marching in the New York City Veteran’s Day parade on Nov. 11.

“I definitely think HR is going in the right direction—going to military bases and making it known that the company wants people with military experience,” he said.

But there can also be challenges, which is why he is happy to assist. “If the HR people have never been in the military, they won’t fully understand how someone’s military background can translate to a job,” he said. “It can be hard to understand what a military resume means.” 

Coke’s North America Group recently was recognized by Victory Media as a “Military Friendly Employer," earning high marks for salary and benefits, military hiring and recruitment, military recruitment training, and veterans outreach.

Victory Media, which publishes www.MilitaryFriendly.com and magazines such as GI Jobs, evaluates best practices in recruitment and retention of military personnel. The recognition was driven in part by an enhanced recruiting strategy Coke’s HR team launched in 2012. 

“The Coca-Cola Company and the U.S. Military have been deeply connected for over 70 years,” said Carolyn Jackson, senior vice president HR, North America Group. “Our military recruiting strategy continues to build on this strong relationship. The company is committed to recruiting veterans, and to partnering with external organizations and programs that support veterans and their families. We believe these initiatives will help us build a sustainable talent pipeline for critical positions.”