Local Coca-Cola workers reflect on plant#039;s history

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 5, 2002

When Chuck Wilson got into his father's bottling business, it was one of 1,300 Coca-Cola franchises in the United States.

Today it is one of 75.

Consolidation has reduced the number of franchises in the country and fewer of them are family-owned. Wilson has decided to sell the Austin and Rochester franchises to Midwest Coca-Cola Bottling, which owns distribution centers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

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"That's the way Coca-Cola is going," Wilson said, adding all types of businesses have undergone changes.

When Chuck Wilson's father and grandfather, Dr. Charles Lewis, started Austin Bottling in 1924, Coca-Cola wasn't a popular item to sell bottled in stores.

Eventually the appeal of the syrupy soda pop took off and the owners realized "they had a pretty good thing," Wilson said.

Wilson and his brother, Jim, started working at the facility in 1947. Jim took care of the finances and Wilson managed it. The current building of the company was purchased in 1948.

Austin Coca-Cola distributed products throughout Mower and Steele counties. In 1957 it bought out Rochester's franchise and began serving Olmsted and Dodge counties as well.

Dale Crowley began working for Coca-Cola in Rochester when it wasn't yet owned by the Wilsons. He worked on a delivery route until 1964 when he became manager of the Rochester franchise. About 10 years later, Wilson made him general manager.

"I just threw everything at him. I got tired of the hassles," Wilson said. "He's done just a fantastic job."

Crowley, 67, decided to retire this year and told Wilson last fall so that he would have time find a replacement.

"It's been very good," Crowley said. "They're very good employers."

Wilson's children all have moved out of town and found their own careers and Wilson did not want to leave it to someone he didn't know well.

But Wilson is not disappointed that his children didn't get into the business because of the current consolidation trend.

"I was not sure it would last their lifetime," Wilson said. "They may have had to sell out before retiring."

Consolidation makes good business sense for Coca-Cola because of chain stores, like Wal-Mart. For example, if Wal-Mart was to offer a special on Coca-Cola, it has to OK it with all Coca-Cola distributors that cater to their stores throughout the country. That's a hassle for the chain stores, Wilson said.

"That's kind of why I got out," Wilson said. Although few small franchises are left in large states like California and Texas, Minnesota still boasts seven.

"The Wilson family is very unique," Crowley said. "They're close to being 100 years in the Coca-Cola business."

Office Manager Marion Neisen has worked for Coca-Cola for 22 years.

"(Chuck) was a fabulous, excellent, excellent boss," Neisen said. "It's a good company, lots of good memories."

The change is exciting, she said, but she is thinking of retiring.

Bookkeeper Heather Rosenthal wasn't surprised that Wilson was selling, but didn't think it would happen this soon. A representative from Midwest Coca-Cola has spoken with her, but she isn't sure of her job status.

Kaaren Wuertz told Midwest Coca-Cola she is interested in still working there. She has been a bookkeeper for 20 years and has enjoyed working there. She also was expecting Wilson to sell soon.

"I guess I knew it would come sooner or later, but it kind of takes you by surprise," Wuertz said.

The tentative date that Midwest Coca-Cola will take over is July 17. Then the facilities will be shut down for a short time until Midwest gets new technology put in and hires employees.

Wilson and his wife, Wanda, plan to stay in Austin, although they spend their winters in Florida.

"We love Austin," Wanda said. "Our friends are here. I have been here always. I was born here and Chuck came here when he was two."

Wilson said he will miss owning the franchise, but he said he knows he won't live forever.

"I'm sorry to see it happen," Wilson said of the sale. "But it's kind of inevitable."

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at cari.quam@austindailyherald.com