Charles W. Coker | Legacy of Leadership Interview
Charles W. Coker (Born May 10, 1933)
Charlie Coker has spent nearly 30 years guiding the fortunes of Sonoco Products Company of Hartsville, and his tenure as chief executive officer is best characterized as a period of unprecedented growth.
In 1970, when he succeeded his father as president, Sonoco had annual sales of $125 million, there were 6,000 employees, and its operations totaled 61. By 1998, when he moved from chief executive officer and chairman to chairman, Sonoco had annual sales of $2.56 billion and its 16,500 employees were stationed at more than 275 locations in 85 countries on five continents.
Charles Westfield Coker was born May 10, 1933, in Hartsville, the son of Charles W. and Elizabeth Howard Coker. He graduated from Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Virginia, and received a bachelor of arts degree in history from Princeton University. In 1957, he was awarded a master's degree in business administration from the Harvard Business School.
There was never any question about his interest in working at Sonoco. "I always wanted to be employed here," he once said in an interview. "It was always what I wanted to do, but my father told me early on that the fact that my name was Coker didn't guarantee anything."
He began his full-time employment at Sonoco in January 1958. He became executive vice president in August 1966, and was named president in 1970. He assumed the duties and responsibilities of chief executive officer in August 1976 and, in June 1990, was given the additional title and responsibilities of chairman of the board.
In April 1998, Peter C. Browning was named chief executive officer, while Coker maintained the duties and responsibilities of board chairman.
Sonoco was established in 1899 as Southern Novelty Company by Charlie Coker's great-grandfather, Major James Lide Coker, in partnership with W. F. Smith. They capitalized the company at $6,000, and Major Coker served as president. The company's primary product was paper cones for yarns used in textile mills. There were six customers.
In 1999, Sonoco celebrated its centennial year and could look back on a century of remarkable growth. From a single-product operation, Sonoco has become a packager to the world, and its products are found in pantries and plants around the world.
More than 18,000 global customers depend on Sonoco for engineered industrial carriers, composite cans, flexible packaging, capseal liners, grocery bags, protective packaging, fiber partitions, wooden and metal reels, injection molded and extruded plastics, adhesives, and machinery.
Sonoco began recycling newspapers and corrugated boxes in the 1920s, long before concern for the environment and conservation of natural resources became fashionable. Today, Sonoco is one of the world's leading consumers of paper wastes and is one of the world's top producers of recycled paperboard.
As Sonoco CEO, Charlie Coker often spoke of "minding the store," which meant close attention to costs, careful research for markets, providing customers what they want, development of new and improved quality products, and rewarding employees.
A close associate once told an interviewer, "I have never known anyone who has a more genuine concern for people or who has a better one-on-one rapport with his employees than Charlie Coker. In spite of the company's growth, which he has championed so well, Charlie is determined to zealously guard and maintain the people-oriented culture that has been the company's hallmark for over 90 years. His heart is still with the people, and he will quickly tell you it is the people who have made Sonoco what it is."
In commemorating its centennial year, Sonoco commissioned a sculpture in bronze to honor its team members—past, present, and future. The sculpture, titled "People Build Businesses," is located in front of the company's corporate headquarters in Hartsville.
Coker is a director of Sonoco, Bank of America, Springs Industries, Carolina Power & Light Company, and Sara Lee Corporation. He is also chairman of the board of Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce honored him as its Businessman of the Year in 1985.
Active in civic and business affairs, Coker is a past president of the Hartsville Rotary Club and the Pee Dee Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He is a recipient of the Silver Beaver Award for outstanding service to Scouting. Charlie Coker and Sonoco Products Company have been loyal supporters of education at all levels. Sonoco led in funding the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics at Coker College and is leading a campaign to raise money to build a new home for the school on land donated by Milliken & Company. Sonoco is also a major supporter of Junior Achievement in Darlington County.
Coker is married to the former Joan F. Sasser of Conway, and they have six children and 19 grandchildren. The Cokers are Presbyterians.
Charlie Coker shares a distinction with Major James Lide Coker. They are the first great-grandson and great-grandfather to be laureates of the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame. Major Coker was inducted in 1986, and Charles Coker entered the Business Hall of Fame in 1991.
He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1991.
© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame