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Ozarks Coca-Cola names 5th CEO in 103 years

Longtime exec Bruce Long succeeds Edwin ‘Cookie’ Rice

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Officials at Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. say a long-discussed succession plan has resulted in a new leader at the helm.

The company’s board of directors appointed Bruce Long, a 23-year employee of the business, as the new CEO at its April 25 meeting. Long, who was promoted in early 2016 to president and chief operating officer, is succeeding longtime CEO Edwin “Cookie” Rice, who was named by the board as CEO emeritus.

Long is maintaining his president role in addition to the CEO title, making him just the fifth person to lead the company founded in 1920 and the first outside the family.

Sally Hargis, Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Co. chair and vice president, said promoting from within for a successor to Rice, her father, was the longtime plan.

“There was never a thought about doing any kind of a search. Bruce is absolutely the right person,” she said. “Bruce’s role evolved into one that included not just the daily operations of the corporation but also strategic planning for the future. Because of Bruce’s knowledge and history – and his ability to look forward into the future and plan for that growth – [he] aligns more with the role of the CEO. That decision was perfectly fitted to Bruce and his skill set.”

Rice, 92, said in a statement provided to Springfield Business Journal that Ozarks Coca-Cola has invested in long-term growth for the company and its employees.

“I’m confident that Bruce Long will lead our company well and continue our commitment to the communities we serve,” he said.

Rice had served as CEO of the third-generation family-owned company since 1970. He began work in 1953 at Ozarks Coca-Cola, which was formerly called Electric Bottling Co./Farmer’s Beverages before his father, Edwin Rice Sr., bought it in 1920. Hargis said she’s worked for the company for 32 years and was elected chair in 2016.

“Bruce is the first nonfamily CEO,” Hargis said. “It wasn’t ever a reason for pause. He’s a great leader.”

While Rice hinted in 2016 during an SBJ 12 People You Need to Know event of his daughter one day stepping into the CEO seat, Hargis said it’s a role she had no interest to pursue.

“The way we are situated is just perfect for succession. Bruce’s role is perfectly fitted for enabling our growth,” she said. “Our partnership is one that is really unique, and the roles that each of us fill work very well.”

Long, 63, said he’s excited about the opportunity to lead the 103-year-old company but recognizes moving Ozarks Coca-Cola forward is a team effort.

“Our job is to continue that vision that they had in 1920,” he said. “Our people are excited about it, and to me it’s another chapter of the history that we have as a company.”

Team effort
Long said succession talk began around the time he was named president, and he noted the CEO role is unlikely to add new work to his plate.

“Over the last seven or eight years, we’ve really kind of been working on this,” he said. “Mr. Rice has always checked in and visited with me on the business. That’ll probably not change.”

Ozarks Coca-Cola, which has roughly 800 employees companywide – a nearly 10% increase since early 2022 – has been on the grow. Over the past decade, the company expanded its footprint – first acquiring territories in Joplin and West Plains in 2015 and adding a northwest Arkansas franchise in 2017. It currently operates distribution centers in Springfield, Bolivar, Joplin, Rolla and West Plains in Missouri, and in Lowell, Arkansas.

Additionally, Long helped oversee a $40 million, 432,000-square-foot expansion at its 1777 N. Packer Road headquarters in Springfield that was completed in 2021, according to past SBJ reporting. The $22 million warehouse expansion gave Ozarks Coca-Cola a chance to consolidate operations and provide space for an additional production line, for which the company invested $18 million. Ozarks Coca-Cola serves around 2.3 million customers through local, regional and national outlets, according to officials, who declined to disclose company revenue or its annual growth rates. It bottles over 400 products, and its distribution footprint includes southern Missouri, southeast Kansas and northwest Arkansas.

The promotion of Long wasn’t the only leadership move by the board at its April meeting. Long said Steve Williams, who previously was vice president of operations, is the new chief operating officer and senior vice president. John Richardson was promoted to senior vice president of sales from his former role of vice president of sales.

“Our executive team will really remain the same. It will just have some added responsibilities,” Long said. “We really haven’t gotten into all of that yet of who will take over some of the responsibilities or assume some of the roles.”

A fourth-generation family member joined the beverage distributor in late 2020 as Hargis’s son, Gregory Hargis, was hired as general counsel. She said he remains in his leadership role but added no future succession plans are being publicly discussed at this time.

“For most businesses, and for ours, succession planning for all leadership positions is an ongoing process,” she said.

In the can
Ozarks Coca-Cola produces about 11 million cases of bottled beverages per year, Long said. However, the company is looking beyond bottles for its next investment.

“We’ve always anticipated back to Mr. Rice that we would eventually put in a canning line,” Long said, noting the company is working toward that goal.

While project details are still being determined, Long said the company hopes to begin producing cans by the end of 2024. Officials are estimating a $28 million investment for the new production line. The goal is to produce 8 million-10 million cans per year.

“My goal – and I know this was ownership’s goal – is wherever there are people gathered, we need to have our brands,” he said. “Every office space, sporting event, every place that there’s people drinking liquid, we feel like our brands need to be there.”

Beyond sodas, the company bottles products such as Monster energy drinks, Dasani water, Minute Maid juices and Gold Peak teas.

With leadership moves completed and over a century after founding the company, the Rice family intends to maintain ownership of Ozarks Coca-Cola for years to come, Hargis said.

“That’s exactly what this move enables. The strength of Bruce as CEO and our family ownership with his guidance really ensures that we’re set for a solid future,” she said. “I feel very optimistic that Bruce’s leadership is going to continue that annual service to the communities that we are in. For us to be able to continue to operate as a family company means so much.”

Sally Hargis: Change in CEO is no indication of shift in family ownership interests.

Edwin Rice is confident in Long as the new Ozarks Coca-Cola CEO.

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