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Coke Bottling shake-up bumps Charlotte company to number 1

A shake-up in the Coca Cola bottling world last week dramatically changes the playing field for a major Coke bottler in Charlotte. The move is an effort to deal with dwindling soft drink sales in the U.S., which are down six percent since 2004. When you buy a can of Coke in the Southeast, chances are good it was made and bottled by a Charlotte company called Coke Consolidated. With 1,250 employees in the region and more than a billion dollars in sales, Coke Consolidated has long been the second-largest Coke bottler in the country. "We're now the largest independent coke bottler in the united states," says Lauren Steele, spokesman for Coke Consolidated in Charlotte. Late last week, Coca Cola Company surprised the industry by announcing it will acquire the largest Coke bottling operation in North America, which is headquartered in Atlanta. But Steele says it's unlikely Coca Cola will try to swallow the Charlotte bottler, too, because Coke Consolidated has been independent for more than 100 years. By contrast, the bottler Coca Cola is acquiring, "was created in the mid-80s by the Coca Cola Company. And basically they just took back what they spun off," says Steele. For decades the soft drink giant has relied on a patchwork of bottling franchises that own exclusive rights to make, market and distribute Coke products in certain regions. As the bottlers carved out their territories, inefficiencies developed and product marketing became inconsistent. Coca Cola hopes it can reverse declining soda sales because it will now have direct control over production and distribution for more than 90 percent of its products in the U.S. Charlotte's Coke Consolidated will make and distribute nearly all the rest.