Dwight Frierson remembers when Coca-Cola had about five different products.
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“Diet Coke was introduced in the late 1980s and everybody was scared to death,” said Frierson, the vice president and general manager of Orangeburg’s Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
Today Diet Coke is among the top sellers nationally.
“That was a huge revolution that opened the door to everything,” he said. Today the company has more than 100 different products.
The bigger selection brings its own challenges. And bottlers also face increasing social pressures and a shrinking number of retailers.
But Frierson, the new president of the Mainstream Coca-Cola Bottlers Association, says Coca-Cola has always been proactive in addressing challenges.
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Frierson was elected as president of the MCCBA by the 12-member governing body of the Coca-Cola Bottlers Association. His two-year term began in January.
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As a subdivision of the 100-year-old Coca-Cola Bottlers Association, MCCBA aims to provide a voice at the table for smaller, independently owned Coca-Cola bottling companies.
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Frierson said currently there are about 70 Coca-Cola bottling companies in the North American region. The MCCBA bottling members make up about 8 percent of the total volume of Coca-Cola production while the top five bottlers make up 92 percent.
“They come in all sizes,” Frierson said. “They have different needs.”
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In his position with the MCCBA, Frierson hears often from the approximately 65 bottling companies he represents not only in North America but also in Puerto Rico, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
The industry faces several issues.
“There is the social pressure in our industry,” Frierson said. “We seem to be the whipping boy for the obesity problem.
“I make no apologies for the product we use or sell. We have a diet version of just about every product we sell.”
He noted the “huge debate” over obesity and how far the government should go in regulating the free market.
“There is a huge debate going on,” Frierson said.
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As part of this challenge, he said Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association have been active in doing their part to help. He said Coca-Cola has voluntarily removed all sugar-sweetened products from school vending machines.
“That is an issue we fight every day,” he said.
Frierson said another issue is the concept of “customer governance.”
“How do we deal with the national customers like the Walmarts, for instance?” Frierson said.
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There are fewer and fewer retailers, and the larger retailers are controlling more of the volume, he said. Frierson said there is the challenge of ensuring each retail customer is treated fairly in both pricing and volume delivery standards, although he said giants like Walmart are the “800-pound gorilla” in the room.
“They dictate more of what you do,” he said.
Another issue is the expanded product variety and the associated costs. Just this week, Coca-Cola released coconut water.
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“We’ve just got to get our arms around how do we handle more and more types of product?” he said, noting that new products have contributed to Coca-Cola’s growth over the last seven years.
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“They are kind of flash-in-the-pan things, but you need to be there and you need to be a participant or you will not participate in that growth,” he said.
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Frierson said the different products and bottle and can sizes can be expensive. The proliferation of products means the proliferation of packaging sizes. As a result, many Coca-Cola plants, like the Orangeburg plant, have gotten out of the bottling business.
“Every time you turn around they would be adding a package or you would have to buy a part,” he said. “It was very expensive.”
Looking ahead, Frierson said Coca-Cola has always been proactive in dealing with challenges.
The latest challenge is getting the product to market more efficiently by having pallets built for each load prior to delivery. He said the product would be loaded immediately on a truck and taken to the retailer.
“Some of the product never touches the floor,” Frierson said. “ We found out that we were handling things five, maybe six times before it got to Walmart.”
He said the new program will reduce inventory time by as much as eight days.
“It will be a fresher product,” he said. “The future is bright.”