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Odom Corporation: brothers best difficulties to keep family business.

The story of the Odom Corp. is more of a family saga than a corporate history. Founded as Anchorage Cold Storage by legendary Alaska entrepreneur Milton Odom, the firm has survived epic catastrophes such as the Good Friday earthquake and a three-and-a-half year strike. With Milt's death in 1988, the company again was seriously imperiled by a multimillion dollar estate tax obligation and minority shareholders who wanted the Odoms to sell.

But through all this, the company has not only survived, but prospered. Three of Milt's sons, John, Bill and Jim, are now at the helm, but the course they have charted is somewhat different from their father's.

John is chairman and president of the Odom Corp. His vision and energy have steered the company through its recent legal and financial challenges. Brother Bill keeps the distribution engines churning as vice chairman and executive vice president of Alaska operations. Jim is vice president in charge of the difficult task of running Odom's Food Services Division.

Liquor, beer, wine and soft drinks make up about three-quarters of corporate revenue, with meat, produce and other food products making up the rest. With the exception of a small soft drink franchise stationed in Lewiston, Ida., and a liquor brokerage operation in Wash. and Ore., virtually all of the company's sales are generated in Alaska.

Liquid Assets

According to John, the Coca-Cola business has been the company's mainstay. However, he is quick to add, "We have made some modifications in the way we distribute liquor and added new management to that division. This has attracted new product lines and developed into a very important part of our business. I can say the same thing about our beer division. We have made significant strides there, too. We intend to allocate additional capital to expand our position in that industry."

Jim Odom is equally enthusiastic about the food service operations. "We are aggressively looking at new growth opportunities, which includes not only adding product lines and targeting new customers, but making acquisitions," he says.

Unlike its beverages, Odom Corp.'s food products are not generally found in local supermarkets. "We sell primarily to institutional accounts such as restaurants, hospitals, camps and military institutions," Jim explains.

Built on Competition

Bill Odom has a pretty clear idea why the company is doing well: "My father installed his work ethic into us. All three brothers spent a good part of their early years working at Anchorage Cold Storage. We feel that they were born to the business."

The Odoms agree that the corporation is particularly well positioned to compete in the outlying regions of Alaska. "Our competitors typically sell only one product line," Bill points out. "Because we have both food and beverages, we can fill our trucks and be a one-stop shop. Customers in remote areas can get their goods every week because our consolidated shipments allow us to efficiently increase the number of trips."

The Odom Corp. lists Seattle as its company headquarters, but about 380 of its 450 employees work in Alaska. "But we couldn't exist without Seattle," Bill says. "Most of our products are manufactured outside Alaska, and the warehouse operations there consolidate them for shipment. It also works better if we maintain a presence near our Outside suppliers. But we're an Alaska company and I don't see that changing much in the future."

Legacy of Challenge

Attorney Joe Davis has worked with the Odom Corp. for more than a decade and praises what the Odom brothers have accomplished. "It's fair to say the brothers were in a tight spot after their father's death. The federal government and Alaska inheritance tax collectors were demanding payments totaling more than 55 percent of Milt's estate. A lot of people didn't think the boys could hold on to the company and meet those tax burdens. They were forced to put their entire inheritance on the line, but they did it. They proved that a lot of people were wrong. More importantly, they proved to themselves that they knew how to run this business without their dad."

Focused Growth

The Odoms acknowledge that quite a few changes were made from the way their father conducted business. "In his later years, Milt didn't always make decisions based upon profitability. If something caught his interest, he usually got involved," Jim says. "So we revised this practice. We don't want to be big at the expense of profitability."

As an example of Milt's business practice, Bill recalls, "Dad liked to ride horses now and then, so he bought himself a small ranch in southeastern Washington. Then he got into the cattle business, so he added to the ranch. He just couldn't do things in a small way. That ranch was nearly 26,000 acres by the time he died."

John observes, "Ranching and selling Coke don't have much in common. Even though we all felt very attached to the ranch, the decision to sell it to our brother Mike was just something that had to be done." Mike now works full-time at the ranch. According to Bill, "His first love, as far as the family business goes, has always been ranching."

New Directions

John also notes that the brothers have adopted a different management style. "Dad tended not to delegate very much. Even when he did, he couldn't stay away very long. Our philosophy is to establish the basic policies, but let our managers pretty much have a free hand to run their departments. We want them to perform like they own this company.

"I think our employees are also much happier now," John says. "We developed new compensation and benefit programs. Milt was out of the old school and he didn't pay much attention to that."

John takes pride in the company's first handbook, published three years ago. "Just to give you an idea how quickly things are changing, we have reprinted it every year since then," John says. "We also have added and improved a 401(k) retirement plan, semi-annual employee evaluations, wage structures and incentive programs. We upgraded our equipment, fully computerized all operations and remodeled facilities. This has been a big boost for everyone's morale."

John Dougherty, sales manager in Anchorage for the liquor distributorship, says the fact that he's been with the company for 16 years indicates Odom Corp. is a good place to work. "We have established an overall business philosophy that gives managers a great deal of latitude. We know where we want to go and how to get there. We have very open communications here, from John, the CEO, on down."

Going for Growth

Noting that a lot of things were put on hold until the tax and estate disputes were settled, attorney Davis says that the company is now positioned for growth. "The Odoms are looking for opportunities to expand their base of operations using a controlled-growth approach. They, as well as their management team, are enthusiastically looking at applications that complement and enhance their current business operations."

John agrees. "We feel that our long-term survival is keyed to growth, but we're not going to lose sight that the Odom Corp. is in the food and beverage business. There are plenty of opportunities to grow in this industry without taking off in new directions. I guess maybe we are more conservative than Dad, but then, he only accounted to himself. With three of us running this business, we tend to be less impulsive."

John admits that the three Odom brothers are still learning. "However, the results so far indicate that we must be doing a lot of things right."
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:The New 49ers; John, Bill and Jim Odom
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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