In 1937, Milt Odom acquired Coca-Cola franchise rights from The Coca-Cola Company for just $1. A traveling salesman, with an ambition to make his mark in the last frontier, he became the first bottler and distributor of Coca-Cola beverages in Alaska. Today, the Odom family has continued to steward Milt’s legacy. Odom Corporate was recently named the leading distributor in Alaska. They also are investing in a new $40 million facility in Anchorage and adding new territory in Hawaii.
We sat down with Bill Odom, Milt’s son and the company’s Executive Vice President, to discuss what Coca-Cola means to his family and the communities Odom serves.
What’s your earliest Coca-Cola memory?
Coca-Cola has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the Coca-Cola facility, which my father Milt built from the ground up. Some of my earliest memories are those of a five-year-old boy walking through the plant and smelling the sweetness in the air. Every now and then, the foreman would hand me a Coke strait off the assembly line as a treat. As I grew older, my brothers and I started earning money washing the delivery vehicles. Before long, we were the ones making delivery runs. We would even fly out to small villages in rural Alaska to deliver product to local stores and customers.
What does it mean to be part of the Coca-Cola family, particularly as a family-run business?
I’m honored to be a member of the Coca-Cola family and proud to be part of the legacy both of Coca-Cola and of my father’s bottling and distribution business. Coca-Cola is an enduring, iconic brand and an upstanding, forthright and principled organization. So it’s no surprise that my father Milt, who was himself a classic self-made man, jumped at his first opportunity to join in. In 1937, after a chance meeting with Coca-Cola’s Chairman, he acquired the Coca-Cola franchise rights for just $1.
What makes Coca-Cola Odom special?
Odom is unique due to the communities it serves: Alaska and Hawaii. Though opposites in many ways, both climates present unique challenges and hard-to-reach customers. Much of these territories are not accessible by road—so product must be flown. To the more remote areas in Alaska, products are barged just once or twice a year. Many of Alaska’s more remote regions have very poor water supplies: laden with heavy metal, ill-tasting and brown in color. Odom has a unique mission in these areas as Coke products, particularly SmartWater, are often the primary if not the sole source of refreshment for these communities.
Looking back over your family’s time running Coca-Cola Odom, what are you proudest of?
The Odom Company and the Odom family have both faced adversity over the years. Building and growing a company isn’t easy. One my personal mottos is: “The best grapes come from the rockiest soil.” I remember, at one point, we lost several of our supplies all at once and were navigating challenges with our workforce and supply chain. But we rallied. My brother and I worked together to get our father’s company back on track. We acquired 32 lines, bought out our biggest competitor and eventually rose to Alaska’s #1 distributor. I’d say I’m proudest of that—how we’ve consistently turned challenges into opportunity.
How are you and Coca-Cola Odom connected the communities you serve?
Given where I am now in life, I sit on various boards—and maintain an active connection with the Boys and Girls Clubs. I enjoy forging connections within organizations, carving out a role for my business, and then handing off the opportunity for continued involvement to local employees who demonstrate passion and interest for the project. Service means a lot to me and I also encourage my employees to participate in the community and support their doing so. But, after all these years, I’d have to say what I value most is just being on the ground and spending time with local people whose lives have been positively impacted by my family’s business.
To give a more concrete example of our community involvement, Coca-Cola Odom played a central role in forming the Alaska Litter Prevention and Recycling organization (ALPAR), which dramatically improved the state’s recycling activities by engaging shippers of our products. ALPAR observed that shippers often hauled heavy products north for sale and returned south with empty containers, light loads and extra freight capacity. ALPAR recommended our shippers use this excess capacity to deliver crushed cans and cardboard to recycling in facilities in the lower states. ALPAR has since become a mainstay in Alaska’s waste management system and a welcome funding source for recycling education and neighborhood garage clean-up days.