Atlanta is, famously, the hometown of The Coca-Cola Company. But it’s also home to Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, which became the bottler that serves the Atlanta region in late April. UNITED – which bottles and distributes Coca-Cola products across much of the Southeast – arrived in Atlanta with big plans.

The bottler has been hiring more people, and dozens have been promoted. We went into the market with two UNITED associates to learn about their experiences. Meet Alonzo Vega, who is 23 and on the way up, and veteran Desean Brown, who is continuing to grow in his career.

An Experienced Manager Remembers His Roots

It’s a muggy, misty afternoon in Atlanta. After eating lunch at his favorite hole-in-the-wall barbecue spot, Desean Brown pops into the convenience store next door to buy a Coke for the drive back to his job as area manager for small stores at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED North Metro Sales Center.

He heads to the Coca-Cola coolers in the back. While it’s not his job, and he's on a well-deserved lunch break, he begins straightening bottles and restocking shelves.

“I’ve been the person that loads this product off the truck and into the stores before,” said Brown, 38. “If I see a way I can help the person in that position now – and ignore it – then I’m not doing my job as a manager.”

Brown’s humble attitude and commitment to his job can be traced back to his upbringing in Boston.

“The housing projects I grew up in were right across the street from Northeastern University,” Brown said. “Where I lived was really rough, but right across the street was a museum and a school and all of these symbols of arts and education.”

It was this proximity to the university that ignited a desire to succeed in Desean, and a sense of dedication to work hard until he did.

Brown moved to Atlanta and attended a job fair. “I came dressed in a full suit,” Brown said. “I walked up to the Coca-Cola booth and told the woman working there that I wanted to work in the warehouse. But then she looked at my suit and began to ask me what my aspirations were. I told her I had vision and big plans for my future, and after she saw this initiative, she suggested a position in merchandising as a delivery person.”

Working as a merchandiser meant early mornings and heavy lifting, but the long hours and hard work inspired Brown even more. “When I started out in merchandising, it was eye-opening,” Brown said. “Putting in that sweat equity teaches you so much about how we do business and gives you real appreciation for the company.”

His dedication to the job prompted promotions to lead merchandiser, account manager and then QT district sales manager. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with large stores, small stores and merchandisers, and each job has taught me something new about the business,” Brown said.

At the end of April 2017, the North Metro Sales Center left the umbrella of Coca-Cola Refreshments and became part of Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED. Coca-Cola UNITED is a major Coca-Cola bottler that is based in Birmingham, Ala., and has territory throughout the Southeast.

In the change in ownership, Brown was promoted to area manager for small stores, where he now oversees four sales supervisors, eight drivers and their backup drivers.

In the transition to Coca-Cola UNITED, Brad McCawley was named manager of the North Metro Sales Center. He knew exactly who he wanted working on his team from day one.

“I am a product of being promoted from within, from learning and listening to others if you give yourself the opportunity to,” McCawley said. “We want our managers to come from our drivers. We want them to understand what it means to put in that sweat equity and hard labor. We want them to stay with the company and ascend to manager and to train and develop future drivers, and the only way you can do that is if you understand their job.

“Desean is the perfect example of someone with a great attitude who has worked hard throughout his career,” McCawley said. “He fully understands what it means to be a manager."

Coca-Cola UNITED has promoted a sizable number of people since arriving in Atlanta. “UNITED is investing in the employees who work here every day,” Brown said. “Our customers see the investments we are making in our people, and they’ll want to work with us more because of it. It all starts with employee relationships.”

Coca-Cola UNITED’s changes include switching to static delivery routing, in which the same people call on the same customers every day. UNITED is creating customized schedules, erasing delivery fees and minimum order requirements and becoming a full-service sales center that provides more than product delivery.

“We really want to bring you the whole portfolio,” McCawley said. “We will have an onsite maintenance and repair sector that will service all coolers and vending machines for our customers. We also have an in-house printing department that is able to create and print all cooler stickers and signs needed for our customers to advertise our products.”

Back at the rainy lunch hour in Atlanta, Brown is continuing to straighten Coca-Cola products on the shelves of the Akers Mills Food Mart. From across the store, someone takes notice of the activity by the coolers and immediately walks over.

The store’s owner, Sal Patel, dropped what he was doing to greet Brown with a friendly handshake and a warm smile. Patel thanked Brown for the shift he’s seen in customer service. “The same driver has been delivering my products the past few weeks and it’s been great,” Patel said. “He knows exactly how I like to display everything, and I don’t need to worry about him doing a good job.”

As for Brown, he’s excited for the future. “I’ve seen the business change hands before, but this transition to UNITED has been the most transparent, clear and concise,” he said. “We are putting the emphasis on people, and that’s something I’m passionate and excited about.”

Alonzo Vega poses for a portrait.

Atlanta Expansion Creates New Opportunities for Workers

A merchandising associate spotted Alonzo Vega at Coca-Cola UNITED’s North Metro Sales Center in Atlanta and noticed something different.

“Alonzo! Man, you’re all dressed up!” he said.

“Yea, I am!” Vega replied.

“Did you get the promotion?”

“I did!” Vega said. “I’m a manager now.”

Vega, 23, is a newly promoted associate at the North Metro Sales Center, a central distribution point for Coca-Cola products that serves much of the north side of Atlanta. Vega, who just became a business development manager, began his career with the Coca-Cola system when he was 19, when he was recruited at a college career fair.

“I started here when we were still with Coca-Cola Refreshments,” Vega said. “I was a merchandising associate. I drove a truck and delivered products to customers. Then, when UNITED came in, I got promoted… They saw that I had what it takes to be in a new role.”

NMSC Mural
The North Metro Sales Center mural.

As Vega spoke, McCawley had a grin from ear to ear. McCawley was instrumental in Vega’s promotion.

“UNITED likes promoting within the company,” McCawley said. “I am a product of promoting from within. I look for people who are hardworking and people who have a coaching and servant’s mentality. That is the only way a business will truly succeed.”

Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., took over bottling and distribution operations in the Atlanta market at the end of April 2017. The transition included hiring a number of new people, along with promotions for others, like Vega.

“Now he is helping us create connections with Atlanta’s Latino community… he is doing a great job,” McCawley said.

Plaza Fiesta
Alonzo Vega shows Operating Manager Jeff Maher a new display in Plaza Fiesta.

Vega was raised in a Latino household in Atlanta and is one of six children. Vega is the first to attend college. Vega  is responsible for almost all the Spanish-speaking or Latino accounts in the district. “The customers I work with respect me because I am Latino,” Vega said. “I speak their language and understand their culture.”

Vega is helping these customers by installing new signage, creating new menus and even bringing in new equipment, tables, chairs and more.

Vega is still learning from veterans like McCawley. “In Alonzo’s case, I don’t speak Spanish, so my teaching him and training him to build relationships is so important because I have little interaction with those customers,” McCawley said. “It’s all up to him.” 

Vega is married, has a 3-year-old boy and is attending school full-time to pursue a degree in marketing. He also works full-time at the sales center.

“It doesn’t get hard,” Vega said. “The sales center has always helped me make sure I don’t do too much. Before, with CCR, I made my own schedule. But now, with my UNITED promotion, I have a more structured schedule. They both work. I am just thankful to CCR for giving me a job and UNITED for promoting me.”