Values in Action at ABARTA Coca-Cola Plant

Everybody loves the “hissss ka-pop!” sound that comes out of a Coca-Cola can when it’s opened, but few have the opportunity to see where their carbonated treat comes from. If laid end to end, the rows upon rows of cans and bottles that are distributed from Pennsylvania’s massive beverage warehouses would stretch from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. But rows of cans and bottles are by no means the most impressive aspect of ABARTA Coca-Cola’s franchised distribution operation, which extends to sixteen locations around the Keystone State.

Everyone here at the Commonwealth Foundation has great respect for the innovators and business leaders who make Pennsylvania run. An outstanding example is John Bitzer, ABARTA’s President and CEO. John is a member of the Commonwealth Foundation’s board of directors, and has spent his entire career giving back to the people of Pennsylvania. That’s why we had to get out onto the factory floor at an ABARTA distribution center: to observe the company culture that has made his Coca-Cola franchiser one of Pittsburgh’s longest-lasting and fastest-growing businesses.

ABARTA Coca-Cola Beverages is the tenth largest Coca-Cola franchiser in the U.S., and their partnership with Coca-Cola goes back to the 1960s. ABARTA has always been a family company―the name is an acronym for six children from the four founding families Adams, Bitzer, Roehr, and Taylor―whose values show through the mission and culture of their operations, from the top down.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s tour of the Lemoyne distribution center was a remarkable and memorable experience thanks to the plant managers, Mike Metzgar and Frank Anderson. Mike and Frank showed our two tour groups every level of ABARTA’s operations, from a presentation on company values, to the various components of the distribution business, to their own innovative efficiency strategies. These guys know how to run a plant.

But productivity and innovation are only ABARTA’s motor and chassis. They’ve also got a luxury interior: the workplace respect and dignity that make them a home for hundreds of employees. Abhi Samuel, the Commonwealth Foundation’s Director of Entrepreneur Engagement, commented: “ABARTA’s values were apparent throughout the tour. What was clear in conversations with the leadership was a commitment to people as well as to innovation and risk-taking.”

Walking from station to station at the Lemoyne facility revealed little surprises that you don’t see at an ordinary factory. Both of the plant managers knew each of their dozens of employees by name. At one point, Mike interrupted the tour to offer condolences to an employee for the passing of his father. Close relationships like this one seemed to make employees more confident to share new ideas and strategies, knowing that management valued their contributions. For example, our guides introduced us to one of the plant’s route processing administrators who had originated the idea of changing product codes on a weekly basis to prevent workers from “getting into a memory rut” and losing their concentration. Ingenuity and teamwork were at full throttle around every turn.

Mike and Frank, along with several other employees we met, expressed their enthusiasm about working directly for ABARTA after the family-owned business purchased the plant from Coca-Cola. ABARTA’s synergy between upper management and their dedicated employee base served as a powerful reminder that the free-market ideas and reforms we fight for in Harrisburg begin right where your can of Diet Coke does.

Both Mike and Frank were adamant that ABARTA’s continued success could be attributed to their six core values: integrity, respect for people, success for customers, innovation and learning, long-term perspective, and safety. In case you didn’t notice, these six bear a striking similarity to the Commonwealth Foundation’s own four pillars: Integrity, People Matter, Stewardship, and Constructive Conflict. Great organizations think alike!

And that’s something we noticed in every aspect of their work. The Commonwealth Foundation’s Executive Assistant and Contributions Manager, Dennise Zimmerman, couldn’t help but comment on it: “What really impressed me was the way every employee was ‘all in’ on the company vision. It was very refreshing to see that it wasn’t just management lip service.”

As we talked with ABARTA’s staff about the Commonwealth Foundation’s hope for Pennsylvania, it became clear that our shared values had brought about a shared vision. Of particular concern to them as a Coca-Cola franchiser is the Philadelphia soda tax, which was introduced in January of last year as a social engineering experiment to tackle the city’s obesity problem. The heavy tax of 1.5 cents per ounce doesn’t only cover sodas: it includes bottled juices, teas and coffees, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Thankfully for ABARTA, their operation is surprisingly unaffected by the city’s paternalistic tariff. Like many other bottling companies, a city-wide tax just means that private shipping companies simply buy the drinks untaxed outside city limits and then drive them in for storefront distribution.

So if it hasn’t impacted ABARTA’s bottom line, why do they care so much about Philly’s tax? It goes back to values. When government invents new, highly-selective laws to deal with every perceived problem in society, it hurts business and individual choice in a way that impacts everyone. Individuals should have the freedom to make choices about their food and drinks on their own. Liberty-oriented values are also why ABARTA doesn’t require union membership for their employees, who already feel appreciated and cared for at the company without paying a third party to mediate that relationship.

Experiencing the day-to-day operations on ABARTA Coca-Cola’s factory floor reinforced the belief among our staff that even when it brings a challenge, commitment to core values always makes for a better business and a better product. It was heartening to experience firsthand the inspiring leadership that the Commonwealth Foundation relies on to forge business-friendly policies that work, and to create opportunity for workers all over the state. The next time any of us cracks open a Sprite or a Coke Zero, we’ll hear that “hissss ka-pop” and remember the stalwart example of John Bitzer and ABARTA, and work even harder to turn free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.