Coca-Cola is sold almost everywhere in the world, but Coke only has one hometown. So being the bottler that serves Atlanta is a big job.

Starting April 29, Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED took over the franchise territory that includes Atlanta. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to be the Coca-Cola bottler in The Coca-Cola Company’s hometown,” said Mike Suco, vice president, East Region, for Coca-Cola UNITED, which is based in nearby Birmingham, Ala. “At UNITED, we take this new responsibility very seriously, and our team at Atlanta Coca-Cola is ready to serve our customers and become engaged in our new community.”

Historically speaking, Coca-Cola’s U.S. bottling territories change hands infrequently. Many bottlers are decades old. Coca-Cola UNITED was founded in 1902, when deliveries were made by mule-drawn wagons. For much of the past 100 years, the company has largely operated in select territories around the Southeast, such as Birmingham, Baton Rouge, La., Hattiesburg, Miss., Chattanooga, Tenn. and Savannah, Ga.  


Over the past three years, however, UNITED has been undergoing an enormous expansion thanks to acquisitions of additional franchise territory in Louisiana and, now, north Georgia. UNITED is just one prominent example of Coca-Cola’s refranchising process, which is leading many U.S. bottlers to increase in size by obtaining more territory, typically adjacent to areas they already serve. Some bottlers are new altogether, including two created earlier this year.

The scope of the changes is unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Coke system. So, too, are the challenges for companies like UNITED.

“The thing that changes with the Atlanta acquisition is the sheer size of UNITED,” said Suco, who has worked in the Coca-Cola system for more than 20 years. “We increased the size of our company by 42 percent, based on cases sold.”

UNITED also grew by more than 2,000 employees in Atlanta and north Georgia, through the acquisition of nine franchise markets and two production facilities.

To understand why this is such a big transition, it helps to know a little about how the Coca-Cola system works.

Over the decades, The Coca-Cola Company has mostly served as the leader of a vast franchise system that reaches around the globe. Coca-Cola is a brand builder that ties the entire bottling system together.

This structure was born in the late 1900s in the United States and quickly grew to include a large number of local, franchise bottlers. Over the decades, many of those bottlers combined together.

By the early 2000s, the majority of the bottling territory in the United States and Canada was controlled by an independent, publicly traded company called Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE).

In 2010, The Coca-Cola Company bought those operations,. Since 2013, The Coca-Cola Company has been working to refranchise these territories to independent bottlers, including UNITED.

Ultimately, the U.S. Coca-Cola system will be comprised of about 70 different bottlers, and roughly 10 of those will hold sizable territories.

In general, as bottlers take over more territory, they start investing and reshaping local operations. UNITED, which is privately held, has already hired 200 additional employees in the Atlanta region, an increase of 10 percent over the 2,000 people the company inherited in the acquisition. UNITED also promoted approximately 150 people into bigger jobs.

UNITED has hired 200 additional employees in the Atlanta region, an increase of 10 percent over the 2,000 people the company inherited in the acquisition. UNITED also promoted approximately 150 people into bigger roles.

UNITED plans to spend $25 million this year alone on equipment, facilities and its delivery fleet in the Atlanta region. This will range from fresh paint to new trucks. The bottler plans another $100 million in local capital investments during the next few years.

While the transition happened April 29, a lot of work was needed well in advance of the change. UNITED worked closely with their counterparts at Coca-Cola, which has several teams that have worked on multiple transitions around the country.

Much of the effort involves keeping employees informed about what will change. UNITED’s human resources representatives, for example, held hundreds of training classes with employees in Atlanta.

Information technology was another big issue. Behind the scenes, UNITED switched the IT infrastructure in Atlanta to a shared service called CONA, or Coke One North America.

Now that the transition has formally closed, UNITED is working to embed its way of doing business in the Atlanta market.

For example, UNITED focuses on what it calls “static routing.” In simple terms, that means a customer – like a supermarket or convenience store – can expect to be served by the same delivery person, day in and day out.

“That helps us build relationships,” Suco said. Local associates also have a lot of autonomy to make their own decisions.

“That high-touch model has worked well for us,” said Suco, who has worked for UNITED for 17 years.

UNITED’s local leadership includes Victor Ragland, division director and the face of Atlanta Coca-Cola. Ragland has worked in the Coca-Cola system for 29 years, dating to his first job as a merchandiser for Coca-Cola Enterprises. He started with CCE in Oxford, Ala., a town about midway between Atlanta and Birmingham. Early on, Ragland met a manager  named John Sherman, who asked Ragland about his ambitions at the company.

“I said, ‘John, I want your job,’” Ragland said. Eventually, he got it and continued to move up. Sherman did alright as well; today, he serves as CEO of Coca-Cola UNITED.

While there’s plenty of work to be done as the transition continues in Atlanta, Ragland and Suco will also focus on cementing UNITED’s local ties in the metro area. That includes philanthropic giving, community engagement and involvement on local boards.

This is important because bottling is an intensely local business that touches customers and consumers throughout a city.

“We will continue our community investments this year, and we plan to expand our giving and civic involvement as we grow,” Suco said.

UNITED also hopes to boost sales across metro Atlanta. “We will serve our customers at the highest level and ensure that our consumers have the products they want at their fingertips,” Suco said. “It’s what we do best at UNITED, so we’re ready and excited to roll up our sleeves and get to work in Atlanta.”