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Vintage Private Stock

Highlights from the company histories of the oldest of Alabama’s largest privately owned companies.

It’s been an active and challenging year for Alabama’s oldest private companies, with two of the top 16 sold in the early months of this year, while others are enjoying the improved economy. Nonetheless, they tell a tale of creativity, family loyalty, and sharp business acumen.

Here’s a look at the roots, shoots and fruits of Alabama’s privately held elder statesmen of business, presented in order of age, from oldest to youngest.

Long-Lewis Hardware, Birmingham, 1887

Oldest of Alabama’s major private companies, Long-Lewis Hardware started as a shop to make metal cornices for the buildings springing up in the fledgling city of Bessemer. The work of company founder William J. Long was popular, and he expanded to open Long Hardware, buying out his competitor a few years later and renaming both stores Long-Lewis Hardware.

Next, he moved into auto sales, through a roundabout route. The firm was one of several that offered a Model-T Ford as grand prize in a contest. The winner rejected the prize, however, saying it scared his chickens. So, Long bought the car from the other merchants and then offered it for sale. Long turned a profit and arranged for more cars, becoming one of the first Ford dealerships in the nation, in 1915. Both the hardware stores and the Ford dealership continue in business today.

Jenkins Brick Co., Montgomery, late 1880s

According to family tradition, Mike Jenkins, an L&N Railroad employee who had lost a leg in a railroad accident, enjoyed keeping bees. He was such an avid beekeeper that he designed his own hive, which was quickly in demand throughout the South. That required a factory, and building a factory required bricks. So, Jenkins took the clay from his own back yard in Wetumpka and began making bricks.

Today, his great grandson, Mike, is CEO, but not much longer. Jenkins Brick grew to 24 locations in five states with a peak employment, in 2007, of 652 workers and sales of $213 million. It’s ironic, Jenkins says, that his decision to build a new plant in St. Clair County—the largest and most efficient brick plant, and winner of the EPA Project of the Year for 2006—was the beginning of the end. The company fell victim to the Bush Recession, and earlier this year, Jenkins sold out to Berkshire Hathaway, which will continue to operate the firm under its present name, but without Jenkins or his son, who will leave at the end of July.

He’s proud of the firm’s accomplishments: pioneering the use of landfill gas for fuel and among the first brick makers to develop their own distribution channels. Especially he is proud of the firm’s reputation as a company that values its employees, offering the same fringe benefits to the guy who sweeps the floor as to the CEO. And about 10 years ago, the company was highlighted by a Harvard study as one of the most family-friendly businesses around.

Royal Cup, Birmingham, 1896

Henry T. Batterton founded Batterton Coffee as a mom-and-pop operation. His wife roasted the coffee and he was the promoter, brewing up his Garland Coffee and Royal Cup brands in the streets of Birmingham and offering samples. His product was popular and his company going strong when he was killed in an automobile wreck.

The firm didn’t fare so well in its next version. As executor of Batterton’s estate, the bank appointed the company manager to run the show, and he made some difficult choices that irked his customers. When coffee was rationed during World War II, he sold all his coffee to his two largest customers, leaving smaller firms in the cold. When the war ended, Billy Smith and several other investors bought the company and invited grocers to a cocktail party at the Tutwiler Hotel. Nobody came. In an instant, the Batterton name was dropped and the company became Royal Cup.

Competition was enormous, says Hatton Smith, now CEO. Red Diamond was much bigger, and Maxwell House had a big share. In 1958, Royal Cup opened a food service division, and built its market share that way.

When Billy Smith died in 1968, the company was in jeopardy again, Hatton Smith says, but his older brother, Bill, joined the team, fresh from Harvard, where he had studied the impact of interstate highways—with chain hotels and restaurants—on regional markets. Realizing that regional companies could be doomed by the changes, he organized a group of regional coffee roasters and formalized it as a purchasing co-op and marketing group based in St. Louis. The first account was Holiday Inn. As co-op members dropped out, Royal Cup would purchase their shares, until it now has routes in 22 states and licensees in 28. Last year, the 700-employee firm did $250 million in sales, with restaurant chains and resorts like Colonial Williamsburg, the Biltmore, the Grand Hotel, the Sanctuary and the Greenbrier on the customer list.

Selling coffee is fun, Smith says. When he first graduated from college, the cool guy at parties was the wine salesman. “Now it’s fashionable to be a coffee salesman,” he says. “There is nothing but positive associations with coffee.”

Buffalo Rock, Birmingham, 1901

Founded in 1901 as the Alabama Grocery Co., Buffalo Rock was born when owner Sidney W. Lee and Ashby Coleman, a Selma chemist, created Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale—so popular that it became the sole focus of the business in 1927 and for 30 years thereafter.

The company was known for its huge rooftop sign, with hundreds of light bulbs depicting a cold soda poured from bottle to glass.

It became a Pepsi-Cola bottler in the 1950s, soon adding Dr. Pepper and Seven Up. The company introduced the 3-liter bottle and 20-can mini-cases.

Today, it is a full-line vending and food service firm.

American Cast Iron Pipe Co., Birmingham, 1905

John Eagan, founder and first president of American Cast Iron Pipe Co., valued his employees and wanted to make sure their hard work was rewarded. A strong believer that labor and management could work together, he left the company in trust to his employees when he died in 1924.

Initial funding for the firm came from a group of seven investors organized by pioneering businesswoman Charlotte Blair, who had earned fame as the first woman in Alabama to serve on a board of directors, at the Dimmick Pipe Co.

ACIPCO has been an industry leader in innovation and diversification, developing a centrifugal casting method in the 1920s that allowed a record 24-inch pipe diameter, introducing cement-lined pipe, improving joints that allowed better water delivery systems, developing stronger and more durable ductile iron in the 1940s, adding a new casting process for steel pipe in 1962, adding fire pumps in 1989, and most recently a spiral-welded steel pipe facility that can make pipe up to 144 inches in diameter.

With its headquarters on a 2,000-acre site in Birmingham, ACIPCO employs more than 3,000 people in its hometown and in subsidiaries around the U.S. and in Brazil.

Cooper/T. Smith, Mobile, 1905

From its earliest days in Baldwin County, right after the Civil War, the Cooper family had a seafaring connection—making naval stores from the pine rosin. But Angus Royal Cooper moved the family business focus to the waterfront. Born in 1877, he went to work at the Mobile docks as a young man and opened his own stevedoring company in 1905.

Cooper/T. Smith is now among the nation’s largest, with operations in 38 U.S. ports, as well as South and Central America. In addition to the stevedoring business, the company subsidiaries now provide harbor tugs, seagoing barges, warehousing, a marine and timberland division and four restaurants.

Red Diamond, Birmingham, 1906

It’s been more than a hundred years since William Fitz Donovan came to Alabama and began brewing his Red Diamond Coffee—named after the rarest jewel in the world. It started as part of the Donovan Provision Co., but the coffee was so popular that Donovan dropped the provisions to concentrate on coffee.

Today, Red Diamond is the third oldest coffee and tea company continuously owned by the same family in the United States, says CEO Bill Bowron, selling its coffees and teas in 46 states, offering a coffee service in 16, and providing food service in a 450-mile radius of its headquarters. In addition to its own blends, Red Diamond develops private label blends for its retail and food service clients.

There have been complicated times—the Great Depression, the current recession, two world wars and a 1955 fire that burned the facilities to the ground—along with business complexities like an attempted hostile takeover.

But Red Diamond remains family owned—now in its fifth generation—and dedicated to its long-time principle that a company has to be ready to change, Bowron says. Now it prides itself on aggressive technology and the ability to keep up with the ever-changing marketplace.
For example, in 1906, customers bought coffee in tin cans or paper bags, distributed from a horse-drawn carriage. By contrast, the company—which pioneered brick pack coffee in 1985—just introduced a new coffee can with recycled-cardboard sides and a valve dispenser to keep coffee fresh.

Other notables for Red Diamond include being the first to introduce decaffeinated tea, first in the U.S. to introduce the gallon-size teabags and first in the South to introduce quart-size tea bags. The company’s quart-size tea bag sales in Alabama top all its competitors combined.
Red Diamond moved to a 65-acre campus in Moody in 2008, the sixth location in the company’s history.

The secret of success, Bowron says, is offering “a quality product at a fair price, being fair to customers, having great employees—and a little bit of luck.”

Coleman World Group, Dothan, 1914

What started in 1914 as an independent, family-owned moving, storage and relocation business is still that today. But how times have changed. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, the company has grown to be one of the biggest in its field.

Most moving and storage companies are still small, family-owned businesses, but Coleman chose to expand, says Jeff Coleman, who shares CEO duties with his brother-in-law, Lacy Blakefield, while his dad, James Coleman, is chairman.

The Coleman family started its business in Hutchinson, Kansas, while Loftin’s Transfer and Storage started theirs in Dothan. When the Kansas group acquired the Dothan firm in the early 1970s, they recognized the growth potential in the Southeast and moved corporate headquarters here.

When Coleman and Loftin’s joined up, both were among the largest agents for Atlas Van Lines. After trucking deregulation in the late 1970s, the combined firm went independent as Covan, which the Group still owns today, serving the corporate and military relocation markets. But in 2000, the Group joined Allied and is now Allied’s largest agent.

Dothan was a great choice, Coleman says. It’s a great size for a family-owned business with everything needed for comfortable living – arts, education, health care and an excellent quality of life.

McWane Inc., Birmingham, 1921

After several ventures in the foundry business, including a stint as president of American Cast Iron Pipe Co. in the early 1900s, J.R. McWane opened McWane Cast Iron Pipe Co. in Birmingham, with a second facility in Utah.

Still family owned, with Phillip McWane at the helm today, the company has four pipe plants, four valve and hydrant plants, plus plants producing soil pipe, utility fittings, tanks and fire extinguishers.

O’Neal Steel Inc., Birmingham, 1921

With roots as a small steel fabricating business, O’Neal Steel has grown to be the largest family-owned metals service business in the nation. Corporate leadership is now in the third generation of the family, with Craft O’Neal at the helm today.

O’Neal and its subsidiaries are located throughout the United States, as well as plants in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China and Japan.

City Wholesale Grocery Co., Birmingham, 1926

Founded in 1926 as a co-op to serve privately owned grocery stores, City Wholesale has grown to a 145-employee firm doing $140 million in sales last year. Pete Dichiara, grandfather of current president Paul Dichiara, bought out the co-op partners in 1926, becoming sole owner of the new firm.

Additional family members have joined the company over the years: Pete’s brother Emmanuel; his children, Pete, Steve, Louis and JoAnn; and now young Pete’s children, Butch, Jerry, Annette, Marilyn and Paul. The youngest, Paul, says his first job, while still in elementary school, was painting restroom walls each summer. His first real post with the company was producing the company’s 6,000-product order books.

As the personnel have changed, so has the firm’s product line. From groceries at first, to cigarettes in the 1940s, back to a mix with groceries and candy in the 1960s and now adding fresh fruits and produce—everything an independent convenience store might need. In fact, the company has added equipment distribution and beverages for offices, car dealerships and the like, as well as convenience stores.

City Wholesale is a distribution company, Paul Dichiara emphasizes. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m selling a carton of cigarettes or rubber gloves: My trucks and salespeople are out there already.”

BTC Wholesale Distributors, Alabaster, 1927

Frank D’Amico came to American from Italy to work in the coalfields, first in Pittsburgh and then in Birmingham, says his grandson, Frank III. But he didn’t really like the coalmines, so he opened a grocery store. Then another. And finally, later in life, a wholesale company called Birmingham Tobacco Co., on Morris Avenue.

His son, Frank, joined him in the business and then his grandson, now president of the company, and now the fourth generation, Christopher Frank, has come aboard.

Through the years, the company has continued to grow, moving to Fifth and 15th, then to Airport Highway and, in 2003, to a new home in Alabaster, where there’s plenty of room to expand.

The focus has expanded, too, as reflected in the name change 15 years ago, says Frank D’Amico III. “We sold a lot besides tobacco, and we sold a lot outside of Birmingham,” he says, so BTC was a better choice. The company distributes a complete line of convenience goods from toothpaste to frozen food, hairspray to drinks and candy—even the paper bags and cups to take your purchases home. And clients—many independent convenience stores but also an array of chains like Rite-Aid, Fred’s and CVS—are located in a five-state region.

Mayer Electric Supply Inc., Birmingham, 1930

In 1930, electrical engineer Ben S. Weil opened Electric Supply Co. as a tiny shop in Birmingham, but even starting small couldn’t protect him from the Great Depression. Unable to manage the finances, he sold to Max Mayer, but stayed on as general manager and bought the company back in 1934. Mayer had added his name to the company’s, and Weil and his family have left it there ever since.

Today, the company has 50 locations and more than 800 employees and strong family leadership.

It’s not luck, says Nancy Collat Goedecke, CEO of Mayer and a granddaughter of Weil. For 20 years, the family has worked with a family-business expert from Kennesaw State University. “Family businesses often fail, not because of the business or the economy but because of the family,” she says. They’ve made every effort to be proactive. Her father, Charles Collat, is chairman emeritus and still a key player in the company, but other family members fulfill their role by understanding and supporting the business, even if they’re not currently on the payroll. And even family members have to earn the right to work there by working someplace else long enough to earn a promotion.

How do you stay competitive? “Whenever you’re in business,” Collat says, “you compete against somebody bigger. So you have to be better and continue to upgrade people and processes.” For example, Mayer computerized its business in the 1960s. And it can take advantage of its size. “Sometimes big companies make big sweeping rules that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of their customers, so we can sometimes take advantage of what they do by being flexible and agile.”

Brice Building Co., Birmingham, 1931

Another of the family-owned companies to change hands this year, Brice Building was sold to Anderson Companies of Gulfport, Mississippi. Before the sale, it had built a reputation as one of the top healthcare contractors in the country and one of the 20 largest in the Southeast.

Drummond Co., Birmingham, 1935

Alabama’s largest private company, Drummond also is among the oldest, founded in Sipsey in 1935. The largest surface mining company in Alabama, Drummond exports Alabama coal to markets overseas and imports Colombian coal for domestic use. It shipped some 27 million tons of coal in 2010, and its merchant coke operations are the largest in the U.S.

Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Decatur, 1936

Growing from roots as a fertilizer distributor for farm co-ops around Decatur, Alabama Farmers Cooperative now supplies a full range of farm supplies, such as feed, seed, fertilizer and hardware, and provides grain storage.

With 2,300 employees, AFC is one of the largest farmer-owned agriculture businesses in the Southeast. Its Bonnie Plants subsidiary supplies plants locally and in every state around the nation.

For nearly 20 years, the company also has provided low-cost financing for members.

Nedra Bloom is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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