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News / Business / Clark County Business

Ridgefield-based Corwin Beverage Co. celebrates 75 years in business

Family-owned company adapts to changing times

By LILY RAFF McCAULOU, for The Columbian
Published: April 17, 2016, 6:05am
5 Photos
Harold Corwin, top left, a second-generation owner of Corwin Beverage, leads a group of children on a tour of the company&#039;s Vancouver production facility in the 1950s.
Harold Corwin, top left, a second-generation owner of Corwin Beverage, leads a group of children on a tour of the company's Vancouver production facility in the 1950s. (Courtesy of Heidi Piper Schultz/Corwin Beverage Co.) Photo Gallery

When Kyle and Laura Kendall moved to Vancouver to run a Pepsi distributorship they’d just purchased with their soon-to-be son-in-law called Evergreen Beverage Co., they couldn’t have imagined what the business would eventually become.

Seventy-five years later, Corwin Beverage Co. is owned by the third and fourth generations of that family. It has grown from three employees to about 130 and now offers not just Pepsi but roughly 700 products, including bottled water, tea, sports drinks and snacks.

In its 75 years, the business has made countless adjustments to keep up with a fast-changing industry. The latest decade has been the most eventful yet for the company, which has expanded its product offerings and service area, and brought in leadership from outside the family.

Corwin overcame steep odds to get here. There are only 84 independently owned Pepsi distributors in the country, as 75 percent of Pepsi distributors are now owned by large corporations. And although 90 percent of businesses are family-owned, just 12 percent of family firms are still viable by the third generation, and only 3 percent of them make it to the fourth generation and beyond.

A family of owners

Current owners are listed in bold:

First generation: Kyle and Laura Kendall.

Second generation: Harold and Barbara Corwin.

Third generation: Kyle and Kathy Corwin (65), Nancy Bjerkman (71).

Fourth generation: Heidi Piper Schultz (40), Courtney Barker (40), Erik Bjerkman (38).

Fifth generation (potential future owners): Seven children (up to age 11).

According to the five family members who own the business today, the community has been key to Corwin’s long-term success.

“We are a Pepsi town and very proud of it,” said Kathy Corwin, a third-generation family member and one of the current owners. “We have Pepsi in our blood.”

Central Oregon roots

The story began in Bend, Ore., where the Kendalls owned Kendall’s Pioneer Distributing. That company sold beer and — though the family today doesn’t dwell on it — Coca-Cola. After just a few years in business, the Kendalls, along their daughter, Barbara, and their future son-in-law, Harold Corwin, moved to Washington take over a business they quickly renamed the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Vancouver.

The family began producing and selling soft drinks from the warehouse at West 11th and Harney streets in January 1941. One month earlier, the family had obtained a letter from Pepsi, granting them exclusive rights to concoct and distribute their cola recipes in Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties. The terms of the agreements, including its longevity, are confidential.

At first, it was a small, family operation. Laura mixed the syrups and kept the books. Kyle and Harold ran the bottling line, loaded the trucks and delivered the drinks.

According to the family, it was a matriarchal business from the beginning. Laura Kendall studied the stock market and wore culottes. When Harold Corwin left for the Navy in World War II, even more work fell on Laura’s shoulders. The population of Vancouver skyrocketed during this time, but the soft drink company was hampered by a shortage of sugar due to wartime rationing. Employees donated their own sugar rations to the business, so it could produce more soda.

Business grew steadily. By the end of the decade, the war was over, and the family had leased a warehouse in Longview to cover the western portion of its service area. The family had grown, as well. Barbara and Harold Corwin’s children, Nancy and Kyle, grew up helping on the bottling line and in the warehouse, and overhearing business conversations at the dinner table.

Renamed Corwin

In 1972, the company became Corwin Beverage Co. Eleven years later, the company halted its bottling lines — that task was performed by a bottling cooperative in Tumwater — and focused solely on distribution.

Family members credit Harold Corwin and his son, Kyle Corwin, who succeeded him as president, with much of the company’s growth taking place at this time. The Corwins built strong relationships with the independent grocers who controlled much of the soft-drink market. They also increased the company’s community involvement, sponsoring races, Little League teams and charity events.

In the 1980s and 1990s, stores began consolidating, and the retail landscape changed. In one year, 12 Safeways opened in the Corwin service area. Wal-Mart opened, too. For these large national accounts, deals were made at PepsiCo’s headquarters, not at the regional distributorships.

“We lost a lot of control,” said Erik Bjerkman, a fourth-generation family member and one of the current owners.

Searching for ways to make money without being so reliant on the national deals, the family turned to convenience stores, most of which are still independently owned.

In 2003, the company moved into a new 90,000-square-foot facility in Ridgefield. The new space was big enough to consolidate a Corwin facility in Kelso.

The move to Ridgefield was emotional. Family members were nostalgic for the old Vancouver warehouse “where we grew up,” said Heidi Piper Schultz, daughter of Kyle and Kathy Corwin and a fourth-generation owner, so the family dug up photographs of the business through the years and hung them in the new building.

“I still run into people who say, ‘When I was in grade school, that was my favorite field trip, visiting the Pepsi plant,’ ” said Kathy Corwin.

Kathy’s husband, Kyle Corwin, died in 2006. His sister, Nancy Bjerkman, took over as president of the company. Her loyalties to the company’s product runs deep: She has never been inside a McDonald’s. The behemoth fast-food chain serves soft drinks by rival Coca-Cola, so her family always avoided it.

“I’ve never eaten at one, and I never will,” the 71-year-old said.

As Nancy Bjerkman prepared to retire as president last year, the family decided it was time to look for outside leadership. It was a quick, unanimous decision.

“Our goal is to get to a fifth generation,” said Schultz. “The industry is changing, and we were looking for someone with an outside perspective.”

The family has seven children in the fifth generation of possible future owners, but “ownership is not a birthright,” Schultz said.

Ron Lloyd served as CEO for just two months before resigning. The current CEO, Keith Richards, took the helm in January.

Expanded product line

Today, Corwin Beverage employs about 130 people, 90 of whom are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union of professional drivers. In the past two years, Corwin has expanded its product list to include snacks such as nuts and jerky. Although its Pepsi products are limited to the original service area, the company has expanded its snack and other beverage delivery into Northwest Oregon.

The company has managed to thrive despite a national decline in soda consumption, in part due to campaigns against sugary beverages. In 2015, revenue was up 6.7 percent over the previous year, and the company remains the leading nonalcoholic beverage supplier for Wal-Mart and Safeway in its four-county service area.

The company is still adjusting to a changing demographic. The fact is, today’s consumers are less likely to feel bound to one brand.

“Millennials are a lot less brand loyal than previous generations,” said Erik Bjerkman.

The company has to be strategic, according to Courtney Barker, a fourth-generation family owner, by adjusting its portfolio to ensure drinks that appeal to changing tastes.

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The family members are being strategic, as well. All five are transitioning out of their day-to-day roles with the company, though they remain involved as owners and as members of the industry. Schultz is president of the Washington Beverage Association.

The three younger owners — Schultz, Barker and Erik Bjerkman — are also focused on a new startup with a familiar name: Kendall’s Pioneer Distributing. That business operates out of the old Kelso warehouse and focuses on locally made craft beer, wine and spirits.

Duane Stanford, editor of Beverage Digest, a trade magazine, said it’s unusual for soda distributors to wade into the beer and wine business.

“For a time, soft drinks were growing, and there was so much velocity that you didn’t need to think about other products, you could focus on efficiency. But as soft drinks (consumption) have declined, one of the areas that has grown is craft beer, so I think you’re going to see more beer and soft drinks coming together.

“In that sense,” Stanford said, “this family is on the forefront.”