The SIP: Season 2, Bonus Episode Transcript

Aisha Chebbi (2020), Junior Bridgeman (Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Co.), and Daron Roberts (1997)

Learn more about The SIP and its bonus episode of the second season, Going Pro in Basketball and Business with Junior Bridgeman, CEO of Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Co. (2013), here.

Intro music

Aisha Chebbi:

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to The SIP. The Coke Scholars Ignite Podcast. I’m Aisha Chebbi, a 2020 Coke Scholar from Miami, Florida. I’m currently attending Princeton University and studying medical anthropology and global health. I also host a podcast of my own called The Hybrid podcast, which dives deep into questions of identity, culture, and society. Today, we’re excited to share a special bonus episode of The SIP with you.

While our podcast usually features incredible Coca-Cola Scholars, today, we’re honored to have an incredible leader from the Coca-Cola system join us as well. In this bonus episode, 1997 Coke Scholar, Daron K. Roberts, rejoins The SIP to interview Junior Bridgeman, the owner and chief executive officer of Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Company. We are so proud to have Junior on the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation’s board of directors. Daron just recently completed a term on the board as well. Let’s learn a little about Daron.

You may remember Daron from the first season of The SIP. He went from studying law at Harvard to working his way into the NFL as a defensive coach for teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Today, he serves as the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas. Daron also serves as a venture capital partner with Notley Ventures. He hosts his own podcast for risk takers and trailblazers named A Tribe Called Yes, and is the author of two books, Call an Audible and A Kid’s Book About Empathy. Roberts has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a young global leader for creating a nonprofit football camp called Fourth and One Incorporated, which provides free SAT prep, life skills development, and football training to at-risk youth.

Now, let’s meet our guest, Junior Bridgeman.

One of the Coca-Cola system’s newest independent bottlers, Ulysses L. Bridgeman Jr. is the owner and CEO of Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Company, which owns and operates a Coca-Cola production and manufacturing facility in Kansas and 17 Coca-Cola distribution facilities sprinkled across the country’s heartland, including Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. He is also part owner of Coca-Cola Canada Bottling Limited. Before becoming a Coca-Cola bottler, Junior was the owner and CEO of various companies operating over 450 restaurants in 20 states, including 263 Wendy’s restaurants and 123 Chili’s restaurants. Junior graduated from the University of Louisville, where he was a three-year letter winner and starter on the university’s basketball team. From 1975 to 1987, he played professional basketball with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers. Junior has received many awards, including the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame, the Volunteers of America Tribute Award for outstanding service to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame.

Both Junior and Daron have such incredible careers full of twists and turns. I can’t wait to learn how they navigate those transitions. Get ready to be motivated. Here’s Daron and Junior.

Daron K. Roberts:

All right, Junior. Thank you so much for joining The SIP podcast. It’s great to have you on.

Junior Bridgeman:

Thank you. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and looking forward to our conversation.

Daron K. Roberts:

Listen, your life has so many twists and turns. And so I’m excited for the conversation and really to jump into the way that you’ve navigated all of those points of your life. But I want to start at Genesis and just take us back to your upbringing.

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, you can go way, way back. I was fortunate to grow up in an area of the country, the Midwest, a little small city, right between Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, a little small city called East Chicago, Indiana. And what made that special at the time, a lot of people, families, had moved there to that area because they were able to get work there. The steel mills were thriving. There were a number of steel mills located there. So people came from all over, as I said, because they could get work. But what made it really special was, I went to school with almost every nationality. From people from Serbia, from Croatia Hispanic or Mexican and Puerto Rican or, you name it. And everybody was at my high school.

So I grew up really being able to pronounce all kinds of different names, all different nationalities. But the thing about it, because everyone’s family was pretty much in the same economic situation, we didn’t have a lot of issues. Everybody kind of got along. It was a great place to grow up, a great place to maybe see the world as it should be. And also being in Indiana, it was a great basketball state, city. And that was the main focus. Along with education, but basketball was a big key and everybody grew up wanting to play eventually for the high school basketball team.

Daron K. Roberts:

So, I’m from east Texas where football is king and so I know Midwest, obviously, the basketball has the top spot. Talk about Gary, Indiana. People think of The Jackson Five, but that exposure to people who didn’t look like you, different religions, different backgrounds, if you were to trace that experience back, talk about how that had an impact on you moving down the road.

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, what it did was it eliminated all of the somewhat stereotypes that people kind of grew up with when they hear about other ethnic groups, but they have had no interaction with them. So they just believe what they hear, what they had been told, what they think may be true. And growing up in an area like that, where you had so many different ethnic groups and so many different nationalities, races, if you want to use that term, and everybody grew up together. This is from elementary school all the way up through high school. So you saw people for who and what they are, and you saw that they are just like you, they’re people.

Daron K. Roberts:

Let’s say I walked into your fifth grade English class, pulled you into the hallway and asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What would the answer have been then?

Junior Bridgeman:

Ooh. In fifth grade, I probably… Like a lot of kids at that age, you see yourself being a doctor or a lawyer or some type of professional or even a teacher. I think you’d have looked at yourself in the future and said, “I can be one of these things.”

Daron K. Roberts:

At what point did you figure out that you were pretty good at basketball? Was there a switch or a point on the court when you thought, “You know what? There’s some potential here.”

Junior Bridgeman:

Ironically, I didn’t even get a chance to play on the team until really my junior year. And the only reason I think they put me on the team is because I had older brother that was very good. And they wanted to, I think, to keep him happy. So I was on the team, but very rarely got into a game. And that entailed really going into my junior year, I had a growth spurt. I grew a four or five inches and I never will forget the moment that instilled a lot of confidence. We used to play in the summer all the time. If you went to summer school, we’d play all afternoon in the gym. And so I was walking out of the gym after one of the afternoon games and the head coach, John Bullet, that was his name, came up to me and said, “Hey, I like what you’re doing. I think you’re going to be our dark horse next year.” And I didn’t have no idea what he meant. I’d never that phrase, dark horse, before.

Daron K. Roberts:

You were like, “I don’t know if I should be offended or excited about that.”

Junior Bridgeman:

I know, really. But he seemed positive when he said it. So I just assumed this must mean something pretty good. And after I learned what it meant, it’s funny how a few words can instill confidence in an individual and make you think that you can go on and be better and to really accomplish something. And that’s what that moment did. It gave me, I think, the thought process, the confidence that I could contribute, I could be better and really work at the game. And that’s really what happened. And by the time the senior… We had a pretty good high school team. We went undefeated, won the state championship, blah, blah, blah. I was able to get a scholarship to go on and play at the University of Louisville.

Daron K. Roberts:

It’s amazing how those words, right… It’s one of those… And I think as I get older, you don’t realize it in real time, but a few words from someone, they find a way to get embedded into your brain. I had a 12th grade English teacher who I didn’t want to write, but she kept making me write my papers over and over. And she said something before the end of the class. She said, “You don’t want to hear this, but you’re going to be a good writer.” And I remember walking out of her room like, “What is Mrs. Henderson talking about?” You’re worried about getting to football practice. But it is amazing how some of those words can really stick with people. And I know that you’ve mentored so many young people. I’m saying this for the younger Coke Scholars and folks who are going to be listening to this, that really turn your antenna up because that could really be a turning point in your life.

Junior Bridgeman:

Yeah. They can have a big impact on you, but it’s what you tell yourself also. The words that you tell yourself, the mental things that you think about that also have a big effect then. And I’m one that believes that you have to focus on positive things, especially positive things about yourself. When you have to believe, keep telling yourself that I can do this, I can accomplish this. If things aren’t going well, I just haven’t figured it out yet. But never the words, never the phrase, “I can’t do this, I can’t do that.” Because it’s amazing how those words really become true and they become the reality and it all started with what you thought in your own mind. But we’ll stop on…

Daron K. Roberts:

That’s good. Well, take us to the campus at the University of Louisville. And what were some of the words going through your head? So when you’re transitioning from Gary, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, what’s the soundtrack that’s going through Junior’s brain at that time?

Junior Bridgeman:

Can I make it? And not basketball wise, but can I compete in the classroom? Well, coming from the high school I came from, you just weren’t sure whether or not you had had the basics and had all of the training to really be able to do college work and compete on a college level. And I never will forget going into a freshmen 101 English class. And the professor, I’ll never forget her name Mrs. Hamburg was her name, and she’s talking about all these books and the kids are nodding their head to all these books that they’ve read. And I’ve never even heard of them. I’m like, “Whoa, am I so far behind?” I wanted to do well, wanted to graduate and all those things. So I went back and did what I had to do to catch up and to be able to compete and do things, do the work in college.

Daron K. Roberts:

Take us to the NBA. So from Louisville to Milwaukee.

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I was fortunate enough to obviously improve and work at the game all through college and to be drafted in the NBA. But I was drafted by the Lakers, not Milwaukee. And two weeks after the draft, was traded to Milwaukee for some player by the name of Kareem, something or other. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think that was his name. But it was me and three other guys, four of us for Kareem so that just gives you an indication. But it didn’t matter at that time, traded right after the draft. All you wanted to have the opportunity to do was to play. And I tell people if they’d had a team in Anchorage, Alaska, that would have been fine. Because all you wanted the opportunity to play in the NBA and try and compete and see. And so, I got that opportunity and played 12 years in the league, which I was fortunate and blessed to do that.

Daron K. Roberts:

Was there some mental transition where you started to lay the groundwork for your future in business? How did that come about for you?

Junior Bridgeman:

True story. I was president of the Player’s Association. So what’s that mean? That means that you get to be on a committee that does negotiation on a collective bargaining agreement. And that’s an agreement that really determines how the league is going to function, everything from how many games to on and on how you travel per diem, different things like that. So when you’re playing, when you’re a player, the most important thing to you is basketball. And so as we would start the negotiations, the collective bargaining negotiations, and I looked across the room and the owners were, I wouldn’t say they were disinterested, but they just weren’t as into it as the players. And I couldn’t quite understand that because what could be more important than basketball? And so we took a break and so everybody gets up and they went to their side of the room and we’re over on our side of the room.

And I mosied over closer to where the owners were, because now they were all excited. They were jovial. I heard one owner tell another one, “I’m building this 500 unit apartment building, apartment complex in Kansas City. It’s going to be great. You need to be involved in it. I’ll let you look at it.” Another owner said, “well, I’m going to help produce this movie that’s coming out. I think it’s going to be good. It’s got some big names in it.” And he said, “What’s the name of it?” He said, “The name of the movie is The Sting.” And for the old people that don’t know what that was, but… And now they’re all excited. They’re jovial. So I asked our owner of the Bucks at that time, Jim Fitzgerald, “Help me understand what was going on there.” And he said, “What interests those owners and what they get excited about is business. To them, basketball is just another one of their things that they do.” And so I spent time talking to Jim Fitzgerald, the owner, and that’s what really kindled the fire and got it going and made me want to think about getting involved in some type of business once my playing days was over.

Daron K. Roberts:

You talk about the owners and what they’re interested in. I worked for the Kansas City Chiefs, I coached there for two years, owned by Clark Hunt. Was at the Detroit Lions and the Ford family. And I always got the sense, whenever they would fly in or be at practice or come to a game, it was more of a hobby. Not that they weren’t invested in the team, but as a coach or a player, man, everything’s riding on that Sunday night game or that Monday game. And they would have some disappointment, but it was like, okay. And go back to business. And so it’s interesting that you crossed that bridge to just eavesdrop a little bit, because that’s when, for you, the light turned on that, okay, this game is bigger than the minutes that I get on the floor or the salary that I get from playing for a team.

Junior Bridgeman:

Yeah. And I think some of the players today have recognized that. I see that more. Or I think I see it more in today’s player, but you’re absolutely right.

Daron K. Roberts:

Now, you’ve owned and operated over 450 restaurants. I’d love to know, take us to the first restaurant. And then another transition into becoming a franchise owner. Talk about that very first restaurant that you owned.

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I made all the mistakes. It was in Brooklyn, in in a little area of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant, which I tell people, “If you don’t know about Bedford-Stuyvesant and you’ve never been there, don’t go.” It is not where you want to go vacation. And so we opened up a Wendy’s restaurant there and did everything wrong. I thought he could just hire someone to run it and not worry about it. And didn’t worry about the location, whether it was a good location or bad location. So just did everything wrong. And the true story, on April 1st, someone broke into the restaurant and couldn’t get into the safe. So they tried to take the safe with them. And at that time, safes were three feet off the floor and weighed a couple thousand pounds. So they tried to take the safe with them.

And there, as we could tell, it fell on someone round the front door, because there was blood around the front door. They did get the safe out the store, but they got upset and they went back and set the restaurant on fire. And so that was my foray into the restaurant business. So people say, “Wasn’t that a indication that maybe you should go do something else?” And yeah, but no. I thought, why give up? And so we took a lot of time, got the restaurant rebuilt. And eventually, I got involved in Milwaukee. We sold that restaurant in Brooklyn there and started with five restaurants in Milwaukee, where I spent a lot of time. And it just went on from there.

Five, and we bought some, built some. And next thing you know… Not next thing, but 10, 15 years later, you’ve got all these restaurants and people say, “Was it about owning a lot of restaurants?” And it was never about that. They said, “Well, it had to be about the money.” It wasn’t about the money because if money had been the most important thing, I would have done something totally different if you could make a lot more money. But as we grew restaurants, we were able to promote people. We were able to create positions and we were able to give people a better chance at life because they were making more money for their families.

And that was really the whole reason behind growing, was elevating, giving people a chance to provide for their families and district managers who were making a hundred thousand dollars a year that probably had no idea they’d ever be in that situation. And when we look back on it, it was never about how many restaurants, it was never about how much money. It was always about what have you done for someone else? And if you look back and can say, “I didn’t really do anything, but I grew all these restaurants.” Then I think you were a failure. And so that was a reason why we kept growing, kept building, kept adding restaurants. Because it improved people’s lives.

Daron K. Roberts:

I hadn’t thought about that developmental standpoint because I think most people would see the number 450 and they automatically start thinking about how much money would accrue to you. But from listening to you, it sounds as if this became almost like a developmental league, right? Where you’re helping people to up-skill.

Junior Bridgeman:

When we look back on it, it was really a chance to maybe help some folks who maybe thought that the American dream, so to speak, is not really going to be there for me. And I would tell people that the restaurant business at that time was, in my estimation, the last frontier, so to speak, for someone who could achieve the American dream without having accomplished everything academically and educationally that they maybe would have wanted to. And that was true. You could make a good living for yourself if you just had a good work ethic and good common sense and were willing to apply yourself. It was not an easy road, but I look back on it, there are very few things, and I can’t even think of one, that you can really say is easy in life that’s really going to lead to any accomplishment that you want. Everything takes effort, time and dedication,

Daron K. Roberts:

Another transition. You’ve had several… The book on you has multiple chapters. If we’re going to get to the Coke chapter now, becoming the chief executive officer and owner of the Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Talk about the first conversation where you thought about, “Okay, this is something that I want to transition into.”

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I’ll take you back to… We did a free basketball camp in Milwaukee for the kids. Kids that couldn’t obviously afford to pay to go to a basketball camp. And obviously it was a lot of inner city kids. And so when we went around the city looking for someone to help sponsor it, the Coca-Cola bottler stepped forward. So I remember going to their facility there in Milwaukee and walking in the warehouse and seeing all of these bottles and cans stacked all the way up to the ceiling. And I said, “Man, wouldn’t it be neat just walking in everyday and I’m going to just grab one and drink.”

Daron K. Roberts:

That would be bad for me. That would be bad.

Junior Bridgeman:

And now fast forward, well, I can’t tell you how many years. And we had all the restaurants, we served Coke and every restaurant. We were a big Coca-Cola customer. And I heard that Coca-Cola was thinking of doing some re-franchising with the system, so to speak. And when I looked around and called some people about the opportunity, I compared it to people in the restaurant business. And there were people in the restaurant business that maybe were second generation, but you didn’t find a lot of them. But when I looked at the Coca-Cola business and the bottlers, there were people that were fourth and fifth generation bottlers. And some people, after I really got into it and got them to trace their involvement back to 1890s. Coke’s only been around a hundred thirty five, thirty six years.

And so I said, “You know what? As far as a legacy, as far as being able to pass something down, if we could get involved with this, that would be the thing to do.” And was blessed to be able to be awarded the Coca Cola bottling facilities at Heartland, which is obviously in Kansas and Missouri at the Southern two-thirds of Illinois. And my oldest son was involved and so I see it as something that can continue, hopefully, from generation to generation as it’s what it’s been doing for over a hundred years.

Daron K. Roberts:

Well, we’re fortunate to have you in the Coke family. And as I think back on your journey, you’re not afraid of making changes and pivots and also in re-upping, in the sense of growing beyond the previous level, right? You’re constantly growing. How much of that is a part of your nature? Is it nurture? What gives you that appetite for risk-taking?

Junior Bridgeman:

I think I was never afraid of failure. Put it that way. And I think we learn the most, not just about ourselves, but about the situation, whatever it may be, going through adversity. And I think that’s something that was learned from all those years of athletics. We definitely lost more than we won. I always tell people, “Read Malcolm Gladwell’s book.” And he says that in order to become an expert at something, you got to put a thousand hours of work into it. And I thought about that and I thought about basketball and all the practice, all the playing by yourself, working out by yourself. And I probably put a thousand or more hours into the game to get to that level. And what makes you think that it should be different than anything else that you do? And so I said, “Whatever you do, if you’re willing to put the time and effort into it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be successful doing it. And that’s the approach I take.

Daron K. Roberts:

How has the pandemic changed your leadership style? What have you seen, or what have you had to react to and change about the way that you lead because of the pandemic?

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I think you had to realize that people have a lot more going on in their lives then than just worried about how many cases we sold or whether we had enough cans or different things like that. And maybe take a step back and say, “Okay, people have enough pressure, enough worry, enough concerns in their life.” But through it all, we were fortunate. We had had a very good year and 21 had started off that way also.

Daron K. Roberts:

I love it. I love it. All right. Fast five. Can we go? First question is this: What are two apps or websites that you can’t live without?

Junior Bridgeman:

Oh, I can live without all apps and all… Yeah. I think there’s too much information out there, but if you had to just pick, I think I do a lot of research. So I’d say the Google app. And I do a lot of looking at what’s going on in the world that may be affecting the business. So in some ways it’s the USA Today app, it’s the Bloomberg app, it’s all the business apps that I go through just to get a sense for what’s happening, what the concerns are in the world that may be affecting our business.

Daron K. Roberts:

All right. Number two: If I looked at the music on your iPhone, what would most surprise me?

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I don’t know if surprised, but I’m a seventies person. So I still listen to The Temptations and the Four Tops and all of those Gladys Knight. The R&B when you could hear what the people were saying and singing, that’s my type. Not some of the other things. And I grew up in the church, so [inaudible 00:29:47] directed the choir, sister played piano. So gospel music was still… So you’ll see back and forth between the Kirk Franklin on Sirius XM and Pandora. So those are the things you’ll see me listening to.

Daron K. Roberts:

My dad was a Baptist minister. So you’ll find some James Cleveland and –

Junior Bridgeman:

Oh yeah. Yeah. Shirley Caesar.

Daron K. Roberts:

Shirley Caesar, Mahalia Jackson, all the good stuff. All right. What’s your favorite book or piece of music or art that has helped inspire you? A book or a piece of music or art?

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, I’ve got a lot of books, so we won’t go down the list. I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell to Mark McCormick to, I read John Johnson’s book and it’s like I could keep going down the list. But art wise, in our office in Louisville, we’ve got seven pieces of art that were done by Nelson Mandela. And they were, ironically when he got out he painted the prison and different scenes from when he was in prison. And then they took a picture of them and it’s amazing how, what he painted, how accurate it is. And the other piece that I have, I’ve got an autographed photo or picture that was painted, that’s autographed by all of the Little Rock Nine, so to speak. From way back when. And to have that and have each person sign underneath their likeness is, I think, very, very special. So those are the two, you just walk down the hall and you can’t help but walk down and look at those. And just think that no matter what you have going on in the world today, it pales in comparison to what some other people had to go through.

Daron K. Roberts:

Wow. 29 years on Robben Island and to be able to paint the prison with so much precision, those are timeless pieces. So, congrats.

Junior Bridgeman:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Daron K. Roberts:

What quote or motto do you live your life by?

Junior Bridgeman:

I could get religious and say, “Do unto others you’d as have them do unto you.” But the thing that I tell a lot of people when I talk to them, especially young people, is past mistakes will limit future options. And so they think, “Well, what do you mean by that?” And I say, “Just think about it. You do something today that’s not good or is something that’s bad, it will limit your options in the future. So think about everything that you do all the time, because whatever you do will have an effect on where you want to be in the future.”

Daron K. Roberts:

I love it. Last question for you: What really makes the Coke Scholars Program unique?

Junior Bridgeman:

Well, it’s the stories. And we won’t even talk about the level of academic achievement that these kids have accomplished. But the first event that I went to, a young man got up and he did not think he was going to be able to go to college. And he was from a small town and he was a good student, but he was working as a bagger in a grocery store in his town. And he couldn’t go to college, couldn’t afford and thought that, “Well, I’ll see what life does for me.” And he was surprised and obviously amazed and honored when he was awarded the scholarship through the Coke Scholars Program. This young man, telling the story, went on to not just graduate, but to become a doctor and to go back to his community. And now he’s running the emergency room at the one hospital for the whole area.

And so you say to yourself, “There again, here’s someone that took advantage of the opportunity. Probably could have gone on and become a great pick a name, a field doctor, but went back to his community to help the people in this small community.” And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of going back and helping people on the way. That really touched me and made me want to be involved in and do whatever I could to help the program.

Daron K. Roberts:

I love it. I love it. That reinvestment back into to the home community goes so much beyond the scholarship and the dollars. You can’t put an ROI on being able to see these young people go back and help the places where they come from. Junior, thank you. On behalf of all the Coke Scholars, we’re so thankful for your leadership and your guidance. And this episode is like a mini MBA. So for folks who are listening, I feel like you dropped so many nuggets of wisdom and were so candid in the way that you led the conversation. So thank you for joining. And we’re looking forward to doing incredible work with you in the future.

Junior Bridgeman:

Thank you. And you’ve made it easy. So you do a great job. You made it easy.

Aisha Chebbi:

We hope you enjoyed this special bonus episode of The SIP, featuring Daron K. Roberts and Junior Bridgeman. To learn more about Junior’s Fast Five and other things they discussed, check out our show notes or coca-colascholarsfoundation.org. As a special note, I would like to congratulate our 33rd class of Coca-Cola Scholars. It’s so exciting to welcome 150 new, incredible young leaders to the Coke Scholars family. Thanks to the support of the Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola bottlers across the country. Each new scholar will receive a $20,000 college scholarship. The application will be available on our website again in August of 2021 for students who will be high school seniors at that time.

That’s it for us at The SIP. Please take a moment to subscribe, so you’ll be the first to get upcoming episodes. And while you’re there, rate us and leave us a review so that others can find us. We look forward to seeing you for season three.