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Ozarks Coca-Cola opens $40M expansion

A unique feature of the facility allows the company to protect Jordan Creek

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Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co. had a lot to celebrate this month, as the company recognized 101 years as a family-owned and operated business and unveiled a multimillion-dollar headquarters expansion.

On May 15, company officials, employees and invited guests gathered to cut the ribbon on a 432,000-square-foot expansion to the site at 1777 N. Packer Road. The $22 million expansion is located just behind the existing manufacturing building, and the two are connected by a unique feature: a connector bridge spanning the Jordan Creek. Vice President and Board Chairperson Sally Hargis said when company officials planned the expansion at the site, the nearby creek – which is currently the focus of a multimillion-dollar renewal and daylighting project downtown by the city – had to be considered.

“We had manufacturing expansion going on at the main plant, and we needed a bigger warehouse. But the creek was still there,” Hargis said. “Jordan Creek is pretty important to Springfield, and it’s also going to be a big part of future economic development downtown, so we kept looking at this property and kept thinking: How are we going to make it work with the creek? We came up with the idea to convey full goods coming off the production line, across the creek, via an overhead connector.”

The connector isn’t for people, except for repairs or function of the conveyor belt that runs along it, connecting manufacturing to storage.

Full bottles of soda will come, packaged in cases, across the connector and into an area with two palletizers – machines that automatically stack cases of product.

Pallets can then be taken into the warehouse space – a massive room lined with towering shelves – to await loading onto trucks headed to Ozarks Coca-Cola’s customers.

Hargis said the connector and palletizers will be in operation by the summer.

“Combined with the manufacturing expansion, that allows us to produce more product and sell more,” Hargis said.

Work on the project was completed with local contractors. The warehouse and connector were built by general contractor Ross Construction Group LLC and designed by architect Buxton Kubik Dodd Design Collective. Project engineers were Anderson Engineering Inc., Miller Engineering PC and Buxton Kubik Dodd Design Collective.

Growing times two
The first phase of Ozarks Coca-Cola’s expansion began in 2018, when the design stage for its manufacturing facility started, Hargis said. The $18 million expansion to the manufacturing facility focused primarily on a new blow-in molding production line.

The new line uses small test-tube shaped pieces of plastic that, with the aid of heat, air and a bottle-shaped mold, are blown into the correct shape and size of a soda bottle. Before forming, the only recognizable feature is the lip, already formed and ready for a screw-on lid.

The blow-in line allows Ozarks Coca-Cola to order and transport smaller pieces of plastic instead of already-formed two liter or 20-ounce bottles. Company officials estimate installation of the blow-in line will triple current volumes, but declined to disclose production numbers.

Hargis said the company buys empty bottles from a co-op in Houston, Texas, and brings them back by the truckload.

“The big savings is, when we go to Houston to get a truckload of empty bottles, it takes 10 of those truckloads of empty bottles to equal one truckload of pre-forms,” Hargis said. “The equipment is very expensive. It was an $18 million investment for the blow-in line. But it saves on freight so much, especially now when gas is so high. We’re still going to Houston to get bottles for (the existing) line, because there’s still such a demand for the plastic bottles.”

 The new line is so large, however, it took over previously used warehouse space. Ozarks Coca-Cola also supplemented storage with a leased facility near Partnership Industrial Center until the expansion was completed.

President and COO Bruce Long said the warehouse expansion gave the company a chance to consolidate operations and give space for the additional production line.

“It gives us the opportunity to have the room to produce more for other bottlers, other areas and to also operate more efficiently, to have the room to operate and to bring all of our departments under one roof,” Long said.

The existing facility was already tight, with not enough storage or loading docks for Ozarks Coca-Cola’s growing production demands, Hargis said. A few years ago, the company expanded its territory – first with the acquisition of territories in Joplin and West Plains in 2015 and an addition of a northwest Arkansas franchise in 2017. It currently operates distribution centers in Springfield, Joplin, Rolla, Bolivar and West Plains in Missouri, and Lowell, Arkansas.

“This used to be all the space we had,” Hargis said, standing in front of the original facility’s eight loading docks. The new warehouse has 42.

“It’s a huge difference.”

Continuing a legacy
In addition to the expansion, the company also celebrated its 101st year as a family-operated business. The COVID-19 pandemic had canceled plans for a 100th anniversary celebration in March 2020.

Ozarks Coca-Cola, then called Electric Bottling Co./Farmer’s Beverages, was purchased by Edwin Rice Sr. in 1920. His son, Edwin “Cookie” Rice Jr., joined the business in 1953 and still serves as CEO at age 90. Hargis is his daughter, and in December 2020 the company introduced a fourth generation – Hargis’ son Gregory Hargis as general counsel.

“I hope it’s encouraging for the continuation of family business,” Sally Hargis said.

Gregory Hargis joined the company after completing four years as a lieutenant with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, according to past reporting.

“I am pleased and honored to become an integral part of such a long-standing and respected company, especially one that is synonymous with my family name in this region,” he said in a news release at the time. “The fact that I’m following in those footsteps and carrying on that tradition makes the opportunity that much more meaningful.”

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