Springfield, MO

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Manufacturer of the Year Nominee

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Kevin Brueske moves filled bottles of Dr Pepper at Ozarks Coca Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. by Barbara Radford-Kapp

SBJ Contributing Writer

Family tradition is at the heart of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company. Edwin C. Rice Sr. founded Springfield Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in 1920. His vision laid the foundation for a refreshment enterprise his family has sustained for three generations. With the company's nomination for this year's Manufacturer of the Year award, the Rice-Heer descendants celebrate the family values that brought them here.

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. operates production facilities in Springfield, Lebanon, Bolivar and Rolla. The company purchases the raw materials for a variety of colas, juices, teas and waters and prepares them for bottling. Ozarks Coca-Cola then packages those products in 20-ounce, 1-liter and 2-liter bottles. Canned beverages are purchased from a regional can manufacturer for distribution to Ozarks customers.

The process sounds straightforward enough, but according to Mark Wood, vice president of sales, mixing beverages requires expertise, and original recipes are often shrouded in mystery. Wood explained that the Coca-Cola parent company is so protective of its formula for Coke, it ships the components of the Coke concentrate separately.

Hattie Heer Brown recalls that ever since she was a child she heard that the Coca-Cola formula was kept in the fourth level basement of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. Legend has it that there are four people, each one of whom knows the recipe for one component of the Coca-Cola mixture, and those four people are not allowed to be in the same place at the same time.

It's no secret, however, that even though Coke products keep going strong, the soft drink industry has changed dramatically in the last five years. Parent companies like Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper have added a variety of juices and waters such as Minute Maid juices, Fruitopia, Evian and others.

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper has met the challenges of a changing marketplace by upgrading its processes and adding technology. The company's new ozonator conjures up images of Star Wars, but the machine is standard equipment for water purification. That and other production upgrades have helped Ozarks Coca-Cola maintain a competitive edge.

As with many independent U.S. businesses, the number of independent bottlers has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s. According to Wood, there will be fewer than 90 independent bottlers left in the country by the end of this year.

"This is driven purely by the economics of consolidation," Wood said. "The Coca-Cola parent company is gaining back control of distribution to the customer without having to involve the independent franchise like us," he added.

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper stays independent in part because the members of the Rice-Heer family are still actively involved in the operation. Edwin C. "Cookie" Rice Jr. serves as president and CEO; his sister, Virginia Heer, is senior vice president; and Heer's daughter, Hattie Brown, serves on the board of directors, as does Rice's daughter, Sally Hargis.

"Most of the independent companies that sold back to Coca-Cola didn't have generations of one family involved. Our situation is unique in that way," Brown said.

But Brown and Hargis are quick to add that employee excellence makes all the difference. As with the Rice-Heer family, there have been generations of employees, as well. It's not uncommon to see a father and son or two brothers working side by side in the plant.

"One of the reasons we've been successful is that each and every one of the people that work here has a pride, not only in the products, but in the integrity of the Coke name," Hargis said.

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper rewards employees by providing enrichment programs and training at the plant, and it also encourages employees to seek further education at area colleges and universities. The company also believes in promoting from within. Wood is a good example. He started out as a vacation relief driver, and he's now vice president of sales. The company currently employs 411 people in Springfield, Lebanon, Bolivar and Rolla.

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper also owns and operates Ozarks Food Service. This division of the company provides cafeteria food service for several large manufacturing plants in the Springfield area, such as Kraft, Aaron's Automotive, Bass Pro, Dayco and MCI. Ozarks Food Service provides vending machine service and commercial and residential catering. The service developed out of Rice and Heer Vending, which opened in 1951 to serve Frisco Railroad employees.

With such a long history in the area, it's no surprise that Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper stays actively involved in the communities it serves. The company has helped meet a wide range of needs with major contributions to many organizations, such as United Way, Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, The Kitchen, The Victory Mission, Dickerson Park Zoo, Junior Achievement, Lasers World Team Tennis and a variety of arts organizations, to name a few.

"We're very proud to live and work in the communities Ozarks Coca-Cola serves, as are our employees," Brown said.

After being in business for 78 years, Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company has become a local institution, but that doesn't keep its management from looking for new ways to maintain a competitive edge. By spring, area consumers will see a new line of Ozarks Pure Water, the company's own water brand, on the shelves. "Our goal is to be everywhere the consumer is when he or she wants to pause for refreshment," Wood said.


Randy Henkle is plant operations manager at the Springfield bottling company.


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