Third-generation Coca-Cola bottling family helps share best practices with others
L.E. “Mike” Messinger had a work ethic from his very first experience in business that would lead him to build a multigenerational family company.
In 1927, at the age of 16, he started working as a bottle sorter for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Spirit Lake, Iowa.
In 1939, he was hired by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Sioux Falls as the sales manager. After 17 years in Sioux Falls, he had the chance to purchase a 50 percent share in the Seven-Up Bottling Co. of Rapid City, so he risked everything and headed west.
The original business had one pickup truck, two delivery vehicles and was housed in an old gas station, with most of the bottling equipment operated by hand.
Messinger got to work and built a new bottling plant after just one year.
His son, Michael, began managing the company in 1970, then known as the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of the Black Hills.
The third generation, L.E.’s grandchildren, now run the company together and have overseen a period of growth that has taken it from one sales center to 25 sales centers across South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
The company now is called Coca-Cola High Country and is led by M. Trevor Messinger, Tura Synhorst and Trask Messinger.
Synhorst, who serves as vice president of corporate affairs, also is going into her second year as chair of the Prairie Family Business Association advisory board.
We caught up with her to learn more about her family business success and vision for helping others.
What are some of the elements you credit for the success of your multigenerational family business?
The company has been based on family since its inception. The family ownership is active in the business every day, and each generation has worked in all aspects of the business. The entire Coca-Cola bottling system was built from the ground up by families. My grandfather came from the farm, and he knew the value of hard work. He was able to pass that work ethic on to his son, and his son has been able to pass that on to us, his children.
My dad was the visionary thinker. He was much more visionary than he gives himself credit for, and he watched a lot of family owners in the Coca-Cola system no longer participate or exist as a family business because they couldn’t get along. And I think he saw that and wanted to prevent that as much as possible within the next generation of our family business. So he laid out in a beautiful way what the rules of entry were for us, what it meant to be involved in the business and what the future looked like if we chose to do that.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from transitioning into leadership following your company’s second generation?
To name just one lesson would be impossible! We learned a lot of really big lessons from the previous two generations, but the biggest lesson is to communicate. You have to communicate as a family so you’re all on the same page, and with that comes creating family business plans for the future. Everyone needs to know those plans and be fully versed in what that means.
We as the third generation have been successful because as siblings the three of us have figured out how to work together by balancing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. We each have a defined role in the company, and we are all working together to steward our business to the fourth generation.
How has the Prairie Family Business Association added value for you as family business leaders?
In the Coca-Cola world, we refer to it as “the secret formula.” With the Prairie Family Business Association, it is the people, the families representing a wide range of industries across our region, that comprise the secret formula. Our family still remembers the very first Prairie Family Business annual conference we attended. We were awestruck by how open and willing the other families were to share their stories, both the good and the bad, with us. As we listened and learned at our first conference, our family was hooked.
Our family has met many outstanding families through the association over the years. We have formed lifelong friendships and connections that have only further benefited our family and our business. We have not only been attending the annual conference for years, but we have participated in the family business retreat, joined the Lunch & Learn webinars, become part of an affinity peer group and served as part of the advisory board.
As chair of the Prairie Family Business Association board, what’s your motivation? What drives you to help other family businesses?
What motivates me are the amazing families that belong to the association. The energy and passion they bring is outstanding — not only the current members, but the ones who founded the association by giving of their time, talent and support to ensure it exists for years to come. I am driven to help other families because I believe in the power and specialness of being a part of a family-owned business.
How do you see the Prairie Family Business Association evolving to continue to meet the changing needs of family businesses?
I think the association will continue to evolve by staying on the cutting edge of what family businesses need to succeed the most for generations to come, keeping top-quality resources for families and things we haven’t even thought of yet. You come to the annual conference, and you leave inspired with new ideas or a road map, you learn about innovations, and you network with other families and they tell you stories, and you learn what others tried that did and didn’t work. I hear from the advisory board as well as members that it’s wonderful to meet families across such a wide range of industries, whether you’re in the first generation or fifth or a small family office or 1,000 employees — it doesn’t matter. We all share a common thread that we’re in a family business every day.
What message do you have for family businesses who might not know a lot about the association? Why should they considering connecting with it?
Embrace the secret formula — the families who belong — and you too will find yourself hooked on wanting to return year after year. You get inspired. You make connections and friendships that can last a lifetime. A lot of us have trade groups where you can go connect in your industry. We need that too. But you come here and it’s totally different from anything else you’re going to experience because it’s just for family businesses. Everything we provide, all the resources are specific to family business, and you can’t get that anywhere else.
It is all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day whirlwind and not devote the time needed to accomplish the family-side work. This is where the Prairie Family Business Association has served a key role in helping our family do just that: provide the opportunities and events for our family to focus on the family side of our business by providing the resources needed specifically for family businesses to be successful for generations to come.