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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 4 years ago

Taste the feeling

Startup or billion-dollar business? In Troy Taylor's world, he runs a bit of both. The lessons he's learned in that balance should resonate with any executive.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive Summary
Company. Coca-Cola Beverages Florida Industry. Beverage distribution Key. Company is managing fast growth with startup tasks.

Constructively confronting the boss at Troy Taylor's billion-dollar company isn't only expected, it's prized.

“No one is above being challenged here, including me,” says Taylor, a 6-foot-5 former Division I college basketball player. “I have a low tolerance for people who aren't willing to bring it to me.”

Taylor, say several people who know him well and have worked with him, also has two seemingly incompatible leaderships traits. He's relaxed, yet intense, a leader to whom people are drawn and no one wants to let down.

An even bigger contradiction: Taylor, 46, runs one of the largest privately held companies in sales and total employees in the region, yet it's really a startup, having only officially launched in May 2015. The business is Coca-Cola Beverages Florida.

The Tampa-based company bottles and distributes Coca-Cola and some two-dozen other beverages under the Coca-Cola brand. It will do around $1.1 billion in sales this year, making it the fifth-largest independent Coca-Cola bottler nationwide. The company provides Coca-Cola products to 18 million consumers every day, and it sells products to more than 50,000 retail customers through 16 sales and distribution centers across Florida.

A former banker who has worked on the financing side of the beverage distribution industry for 20 years, Taylor was awarded a rare opportunity to buy into a Coca-Cola bottling operation in 2014. Prior to Taylor, distribution of Coke products in Florida was handled through a Coca-Cola corporate entity.

But what started as just the Central Florida market, from Lakeland to Fort Myers, quickly grew. The Taylor-led Coca-Cola kingdom now includes North Florida, from Jacksonville to Daytona plus Orlando and Gainesville, in addition to South Florida, from West Palm Beach to Big Pine Key.

It's been a blur-like march to seize opportunity to grab market share, and Tampa area business leaders and Taylor's highly accomplished senior leadership have noticed. “What he's doing with Coca-Cola is unprecedented,” says veteran Coca-Cola corporate executive Erika Noonburg-Morgan. She joined Coca-
Cola Beverages Florida last year, when Taylor lured her from a post in California to be CFO.

Tampa attorney Rhea Law, chairwoman of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's Florida offices, says Taylor has impressed many area business and civic leaders with his ability to articulate his strategy and vision. “His desire to grow the Coca-Cola brand in Florida is exciting,” says Law, who is on the Tampa Bay Partnership council of governors with Taylor. “He has aggressive growth plans, but he's smart about how he's going about it.”

Start it up
The first part of Taylor's plan was to isolate what he had from what he didn't have.

He had an already existing customer base. And he also had about 5,000 employees working for the corporate entity, from truck drivers to bottling center employees.

What Coca-Cola Beverages Florida didn't have was a foundation.

“We basically had to create a brand new company,” says Noonburg-Morgan, “with a brand new business infrastructure.”

Things it lacked included a payroll process, benefits, internal policies, IT, insurance, local office space, senior executives and division heads. The company also lacked a vision and mission that would mark it as its own entity, separate but aligned with the Coca-Cola brand. “Although we are backed by an extremely large set of assets,” Taylor says, “we had to stand on our own.”

Taylor hired a team of a dozen senior leaders, and also added about 125 people for various management and other positions across the company. Everyone on the top leadership team has experience with Coca-Cola, either a distributor or a corporate entity, or in some cases, both. Coca-Cola Beverages Florida President and COO Reginald Goins, for example, has been in the Coca-Cola system for 16 years. He was most recently market unit vice president of sales operations for the Ohio-Kentucky region of Coca-Cola Refreshments.

Coca-Cola corporate officials have been impressed by Taylor's swift progress so far. “Troy Taylor and the team he is building in Florida are great examples of how the Coca-Cola bottling system is evolving and getting even stronger,” says Coca-Cola North America president Sandy Douglas in an email. “Troy is intently focused on being closely involved in the communities where Coca-Cola Beverages Florida does business. He's also leading a company that reflects the incredibly diverse population of the state of Florida.”

Results matter
The company has also been going through normal growing pains most startups face. And despite its size, Taylor wants the company to remain nimble and flexible, like a startup.

The organizational chart, for one, isn't a final document pinned to the inside of a cubicle. Instead, Taylor and senior managers regularly move names around, striving for near-perfection in the “Good to Great” battle to get the right people in the right seats. Earlier this fall two employees were demoted. Others were promoted.

Taylor calls the process the company's “culture of accountability.”

That goes down to a just-do-it mentality for projects and assignments. “I don't want to see an empty office, but I don't count hours,” Taylor says. “I count results.”

Taylor also preaches likability. One important mission, he says, is to build a company with top-shelf customer service for small and big customers alike, where problems are solved locally, and quickly. The client list varies from Wal-Mart and Publix to the local neighborhood bar. Says Taylor: “There are very few places
we don't go to.”

Taylor has personally met with many customers in the last year, and plans to continue those one-on-ones, from restaurant managers to University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft. “The localizing of this business is key,” Taylor says. “If we can do that, we win.”

Tough interview
A Lafayette, La., native, Taylor played basketball for Marshall University in West Virginia in the early 1990s. A finance and business law major, he got a summer job as a business analyst at a bank.

That led to a career in finance, which included stints with J.P. Morgan, Accenture and BBVA Compass. He often helped Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola distributors obtain financing, work he found fascinating.

He also realized he enjoyed the management and operational sides of the bottling business, not just number crunching. In the mid 1990s Taylor worked on one particularly complicated Coca-Cola bottling distribution deal in Miami, connected with the Puerto Rican family behind Bacardi. “And that's when I got the fever,” he says. “That's when I knew I wanted to be in this side of the business.”

But buying a Coca-Cola bottling unit isn't like buying into most other franchises. Top Coca-Cola executives extensively interview (read: grill) perspective bottlers. The reason why: These distributorships don't come up often, and there aren't many of them to begin with.

For 60 years, Coca-Cola corporate entities controlled the bottling and distribution systems in most markets nationwide, with a different system overseas. But in 2010, mostly in an effort to get closer to customers in diverse markets with rapidly changing tastes, Coca-Cola decided to sell some individual territories. The idea was to sell units to executives who could then build what's basically a startup backed by a multibillion-dollar iconic and global brand.

That's where Taylor comes in.

Taylor was living in the Houston area when the Florida Coca-Cola opportunity came up, which he heard about through contacts within the company. He went through the interview process in 2014, and took ownership in May 2015. Taylor declines to disclose how much he paid for entry into the distribution system, or what he paid to expand to the other Florida markets.

The process now works like this: Coca-Cola Beverages Florida gets ingredients and some supplies from Coca-Cola corporate in Atlanta. Then it manufactures, bottles and packages the drinks for delivery to customers.

Sweet treat
Managing the growth while maintaining high levels of service is an obvious challenge Taylor and his team will focus on in 2017.

Another challenge, more of a threat, is from potential legislation that limits so-called sugary drink consumption. Several cities and municipalities nationally have enacted such legislation. It's something Taylor and his team watch closely.

Taylor says obesity concerns in relation to soft drinks, in general, are legitimate. But when the movement singles out certain companies, especially ones with deep pockets, he believes it begins to overreach. “We don't fear the conversation, we just want it to be open and honest,” he says. “We think the most important thing is to give people freedom of choice.”

Taylor, not only for that issue but to remain proactive on any regulatory or governance issue that impacts Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, recently hired well-regarded public affairs official Amy Maguire. Named vice president of public affairs, communications and government relations in September, Maguire has more than 20 years' experience in policy, regulatory and lobbying-related issues. She held a similar position at John's Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

With Maguire and his other top leaders, Taylor aims to send a message that he's in this to grow a sustainable business, not just growth for growth's sake.
“This isn't something I'm looking to get out of in three to five years,” he says. “This is something I want my grandkids to own someday.”

Career advice

Troy Taylor started in banking for a summer job while in college. Nearly 25 years later, he runs one of largest independent Coca-Cola bottlers in the country — a career he never would have known about without banking. Taylor often counsels young people who seek a career path that banking hits the spot.

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