By GRAHAM OSTEEN
Editor and Publisher, The Hartsville, S.C. Messenger
(Written in October 1997)
When we purchased The Hartsville Messenger from Joseph L. Wiggins in January 1995, we all - meaning our family - had a good idea of the fact that Hartsville was known as a company town, that THE company was Sonoco, and that the Coker family historically has been a major driving force for much of what goes on in Hartsville and the surrounding areas of Darlington County.
Since my father has owned and followed Sonoco stock for a number of years, we have, through annual reports and newspaper articles, followed the healthy revenue and earnings growth the company has posted year after year. We'll get into more on those extraordinary numbers later in the paper.
The Messenger, as the paper is now called, was Osteen Publishing Co.'s first purchase of another newspaper, and for the first 2 1/2 years - from January 1995 to about June of 1997 - we concentrated mainly on making logistical changes to the paper. We left people in place and tried to teach them new things. We put in a new computer system to speed production and enable us to produce the paper on computer over there, then bring it to Sumter on disk to make negatives and print it here. We made basic design changes to modernize the look of the paper, and we began running most of the basic business operations, such as payroll, taxes and insurance, through our offices in Sumter.
Things proceeded relatively well for that initial period, but we realized that the paper wasn't really getting any better in terms of its coverage, advertising base or in terms of its feel for the community. It had no real local presence, as we say in the newspaper business, and we began considering some more dramatic changes.
I spent time in Hartsville in the summer of 1997, living and working there and talking to a wide range of local people about the paper. The message I got, loud and clear, was pretty much what we all expected: The paper was not good, and it was not nearly as sophisticated as the community it purported to serve. People simply didn't take it seriously, and hadn't since long before our purchase.
That brings us to where we are today. I've been commuting to Hartsville for the past six months and running the paper.
We are only now beginning to get a good feel for what needs to be done in terms of restoring - or establishing - a credible newspaper in a community like Hartsville, and we are making steady changes to every aspect of the paper as it grows and as we get to know the ins and outs of this city and this area. It's what we like to call “a work in progress.”
What I've learned about Hartsville in the past six months is this: It is a very progressive community with a deep sense of history, there are many wealthy people there who support the community through money, time and effort, and the Coker family - and Sonoco employees, past and present - set the tone for much of what goes on through active community involvement. Sonoco’s success through this century has created many millionaires and spawned countless other businesses, and I believe Hartsville in many ways is one of the best-kept secrets in South Carolina.
That brings us to the topic of tonight's paper: A Southern Novelty, as in the Southern Novelty Company, as in Sonoco.
The story of the Cokers and Sonoco reads like a great, epic Southern novel. There is drama, war, tragedy, faith, risk, courage, outstanding business, personal and intellectual achievement, and a steady, wise and determined man at the center - a leader who set the tone for it all.
He was called The Major, and his name was James Lide Coker, the founder of Sonoco and the driving force for many of the businesses that started in Hartsville in the early part of the century. He also founded Coker College.
I've now read a number of different accounts of the story of Sonoco's beginnings and the Coker family itself, but the best by far is a book published in 1957 titled ``The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family'' by George Lee Simpson Jr. for the Institute for Research in Social Science by the University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill.
Virtually every account of the early years written since then has, I believe, been based at least in part on the exhaustive work this man did in compiling the history of the Coker family and documenting it well into the 1950s. He used actual letters and detailed accounts from family members to compile his book, and the story is as interesting as any biographical sketch I've ever read.
In the interest of time and for the purposes of this paper, I've decided to start with an overview of the period from roughly 1830 to 1899, when Sonoco was founded, then touch on various highlights and achievements that will bring us into the modern age.
THE EARLY YEARS
For our purposes here tonight, let's just say the whole thing started when Caleb Coker Jr. married Hannah Ann Frances Lide on Oct. 14, 1830. Remember these names, because the Cokers, even today, don't get too far away from what you might call a core group of names. It can be a little confusing.
They settled in the Society Hill area - or Welsh Neck, as it came to be known - where Caleb had a general store with a man named J. Eli Gregg. The store opened in 1828, and the building still stands today in Society Hill.
Caleb was a skilled businessman, and the store thrived. He traveled to New York and Philadelphia to buy goods and he saved money with great discipline.
The cotton economy was crude, and Caleb extended credit to farmers based on his judgment as to a farmer's ability to grow cotton and pay the bill. The standard rate for all customers was 7 percent. The system apparently worked well for him, for by the late 1830s he was branching out into growing cotton himself, purchasing large tracts of land in the Society Hill area, and purchasing slaves.
In the 1840s he built a big home which became known as Camp Marion - the orignial Coker homestead - helped build a railroad into the area and helped start a bank in nearby Cheraw. He was actively involved in the affairs of the community.
Caleb and Hannah Coker had 10 children. After two daughters, they had their first son, James Lide Coker, who later became known as The Major.
James and two of his brothers - William and Charles - were involved in The Civil War from the beginning. Like so many young men of that time, they were determined to fight for their way of life. James was the captain of an infantry company which he organized in 1859 in Hartsville. The company was at the disposal of the governor. It was called up as part of the 9th Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, and the company saw intense action throughout the war. One of the bloodiest of these was the Seven Days Battle - Mechanicsville, Beaver Dam, Gaines Mill, Savage Station, Frayser's Farm and Malvern Hill.
James had been sent to the rear with sickness and fever toward the end of this campaign. It was in an attack on Malvern Hill led by William Coker that their younger brother Charlie was killed. William saw him fall but went on. Afterward, he hunted among the dead and wounded for his brother. In the morning he found him lying in the rain, dead.
James was still sick with fever and was sent to Richmond, where he recovered and eventually returned to battle. Simpson’s book contains a poignant letter James wrote to his mother about Charlie’s death. It reads, in part, “My first impulse after hearing that God had stricken us, by taking from us our noble Charlie, was to write to you......I thought of the terrible blow which the sudden tidings would inflict, and then of your bursting heart after the realization of the awful truth........But the sweet promises of One, who is good even while He afflicts, presented themselves to me, and I felt sure you would have grace sufficient and could even give unto our Father, praise and thanksgiving. For have we not, Mother, many causes for thankfulness?”
I found this an extraordinary piece of writing given the terrible circumstances of war, and as you will see it says a great deal about this man’s resilient spirit.
In 1863, James' company was left in place to protect Richmond. William moved out with Lee's army in the last invasion of the North. William was wounded again at Gettysburg, then captured while being carried to the rear on a stretcher. He was held prisoner at several different prisons, and the conditions at them all were miserable. James, the Major, moved on to fight in Tennessee, where they arrived just after the Battle of Chickamauga. It was in a small skirmish in tangled woods that James was shot down, his thigh fractured near the hip joint.
So the Coker family had, in the space of a couple of years, lost one son, Charlie; had another, William, imprisoned, and the oldest, James, severely wounded.James' wife, Sue, and his mother, got word of his injury and set out for Tennesee with the family doctor in tow to nurse him. It was a harrowing journey since supplies and surgical assistance were almost non-existent, food scarce and travel dangerous and difficult. They finally got to James and began tending to him, but it was another six months before James was deemed well enough to be taken home to South Carolina.
He resumed work on the farm in 1864, despite the harsh conditions the war had inflicted on them, and that fall represented Darlington County in the state House of Representatives. He introduced a bill to establish a system of free public schools, but it was defeated in the Senate. This proposal was way ahead of its time, and was defeated mainly because of the lack of funds during wartime.
By the spring of 1865, James got word that his company was back around Richmond, in terrible condition and dug in for the final fight that was to end in surrender at Appomattox.
He set out for Richmond.
It's not clear from the various accounts exactly what happened in Richmond on this dangerous trip, but it was during this time that Sherman reached Savannah and the sea, then turned north and headed up through South Carolina. When James returned to Hartsville and Society Hill, he found desolation.All the stock - horses, mules, oxen, cattle - had been driven off or butchered. The cotton was burned and the houses and supplies ransacked and stolen.
The war ended in April, and brother William also finally returned. James had acquired lifetime military title, and would forever be known as Major Coker, and William as Captain Coker.
THE SOUTHERN NOVELTY COMPANY
Prior to the war, the Major had spent a year at Harvard in 1858 studying under Louis Agassiz, the most distinguished naturalist of the day, and the famous botanist, Asa Gray. The concept of scientific plant breeding was to play a major part in the Coker family's Pedigreed Seed Company and the related other businesses.
Again, to keep the paper as focused as possible, at this point I'm going say - and this is a huge simplification - that after much trial, tribulation and experimentation, the Major’s son, James Jr., with his father’s support, figured out how to turn our abundant Southern pine trees into a relatively coarse grade of paper used for packing and wrapping. The first mill of the Carolina Fiber Company was built in 1895. In March of 1899, it was decided to form a company to use the paper manufactured by Carolina Fiber Co. to produce paper cones for the textile industry on which cotton yarn could be wound. This company was named the Southern Novelty Co., and the name was later abbreviated to Sonoco in 1923.
What you have, then, in Hartsville in 1899, are the paper company, which was making low-grade paper from Southern pine; the Southern Novelty Co., which used the paper to make cones for the cotton industry; the Hartsville Oil Mill, which was started by the Major and J.J. Lawton, whose families have continued in business together to this day; the J.L. Coker store, owned by the Major and the primary supplier for the area for virtually everything, from clothes to farm equipment and supplies; and a railroad and a bank, both of which the Major helped start.
(As an aside in regard to J.J. Lawton: one of his daughters, Pauline, married the late A.L.M. Wiggins, who worked for the Cokers as general manager of the store. He came to Hartsville in 1913 from Chapel Hill. He bought the newspaper in 1921. His son, Joe, is who we purchased it from in 1995. A.L.M. Wiggins went on to serve as president of the American Bankers Association and Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Truman administration. Joe still lives in Hartsville today with his wife, Betty.)
I note all these connections and involvements because The Major is not known as the Father of Hartsville for nothing. He had a hand in virtually everything that happened, including laying out the plan for the city and the streets.
Back to Sonoco itself: The company had sales of $17,000 and income of $2,000 in the first year of operation. The Major's son, Charles, was the company's main salesman and manager. The Major died in 1918 at the age of 81, and his son, Charles, became president of the company.Sales of the company at that time - 1918 - were $514,557, and income was $34,709.
Charles Coker died in 1931 at the age of just 52, and sales had reached $1.6 million a year with income of $200,000. The company had 200 employees in 1931.
Charles had two sons in the business at that time - James Lide Coker III, who was 27, and Charles Westfield Coker, who was 25. The father had recommended to the directors that upon his death, James be named president since he had worked in every division of the company throughout the summers from high school through college. This was exactly what happened in 1931.
James had graduated from UNC and had a master's degree in business from Harvard, which is where several generations of Coker men have gotten their master’s degrees. During this period in the 1930s and '40s, Sonoco expanded both its plant structure and its earnings, and had begun to attract a wide array of customers outside the textile industry. This led to diversification of the product line and expansion into overseas markets.
Sonoco fared well during the Depression through this diversification. It began making cones and tubes out of other material to meet changing needs. It made cones to handle synthetic fabrics such as rayon, for example, that was becoming an alternative to cotton.
Sonoco absorbed the Carolina Fiber Co. - the paper-making enterprise - in 1941, and plants were established or acquired in eight new locations, from Georgia to California. A subsidiary company was started in Canada with James' brother Charles as president. James Lide Coker, like his father, died relatively young. He was 56 when he died in 1961. The company's sales were $38 million and income was $2.5 million.
His brother, Charles W. Coker, took over Sonoco in 1961 and was president until 1970. When he moved from president to chairman of the board in 1970, sales were $125 million and income was $6.3 million. He died in 1978.
His son, Charles W. Coker - known commonly as Charlie - took over as president in 1970 and is still president today. Sales for 1997 were $2.8 billion, and net income was about $175 million.
Charlie Coker, who many of you may know, is a graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Business School. The great-grandson of the Major has redirected Sonoco through internal growth and acquisition, clearly defining Sonoco as a global packaging company, offering a broad range of products to industrial and consumer markets. The multi-billion dollar organization has 17,000 employees. It has nearly 300 locations on five continents and serves customers in more than 85 countries around the world. There are about 3,000 employees in the Carolinas, with just under 2,000 in Hartsville. Hartsville is also where the top management lives and works.
Charlie’s son, Charles, is two years older than me and attended Woodberry Forest at the same time. He is active in the business now and lives in Hartsville with his wife and four daughters. Big families are apparently another part of the Coker tradition. In a 1974 paper titled ``The Story of Sonoco Products Company,'' which was delivered to the Newcomen Society of North America at a meeting in Columbia, the late Charles Coker - father of the current president, Charlie - outlined much of this same history and offered a variety of interesting insights into the company's success. He noted at the time - which was 24 years ago - that he had, in preparation for his paper, talked with one of the few remaining old guards.
He asked the man to what he attributed the continual success of the company.
``I believe,'' the man said, ``it is the fact that the business principles laid down by old Major Coker have been followed implicitly by each succeeding president, which established a continuity and credibility which gave all Sonoco people something to tie to.''
This sounds simple, but it seems to be true. The Sonoco people I've come to know in my short association with Hartsville are quite dedicated and proud of the company, and management seems to do a remarkable job of creating an atmosphere of teamwork on many levels. It's truly impressive.
THE MODERN AGE
Sonoco’s major product lines today are: paperboard tubes, cores, cones; high density film, an example of which is plastic grocery bags; protective packaging, an example of which is box dividers; industrial containers, an example of which is drums for juice concentrate; labels, cartons and the printing of them, an example of which is Gillette Sensor razors package; composite cans, an example of which is Planters peanuts; and flexible packaging, an example of which is a Fig Newton wrapper.
Put another way, Sonoco makes cardboard dividers to cushion fine wines, cans for Planters peanuts, wooden reels for telephone cable, bags for M&Ms, Lipton tea canisters, caulk cartridges, tennis ball tubes and crinkly wrap to keep Oreos fresh. It also makes more of the 40 billion plastic grocery bags used every year than anybody in the world.
The company today is known for its innovativeness and ability to identify markets by watching how people live, as an article in the Charlotte Observer noted in 1995. It creates products that make life easier and keeps changing these products and improving them as new needs emerge. There’s no such thing as a mature market, a key vice president commented in that article.
Walk into a grocery store anywhere in the world, buy your products and put them into a plastic bag. It’s extraordinary to consider that a company in Hartsville, South Carolina - begun just under 100 years ago by an industrious, pragmatic and brilliant Civil War veteran - plays such a big part in our everyday lives.