Alaska Business Hall of Fame Laureate: Milton W. Odom
This article was originally published in the January 1992 issue of Alaska Business Monthly
Milton W. Odom came to Alaska as an ambitious young traveling salesman and built Odom Corp., one of the state’s leading wholesale distributors of meats, produce, soft drinks, and liquor. On the way to success, this colorful character endured the 1964 earthquake, helped make Anchorage the site of a year-round port, and even got the best of Howards Hughes.
The successes and setbacks of this Alaska business pioneer mirror the state’s history for more than fifty years. His company grew with the state, expanding with the influx of servicemen and oilfield workers and holding on during the slow years.
Attorney Joe Davis, who worked with Odom for nine years, notes, “It gave Milt a lot of pleasure to spot a deal and negotiate something no one else could, but money wasn’t really the thing driving him. He was very loyal and forgiving and demanding.”
Another attorney who worked with Odom for many years, Wallace Aiken, says simply, “I never met a man who didn’t like Milton Odom.” Odom is remembered for forgiving loans, extending credit, and helping in other ways. He had a particular soft spot for the widows of his employees and often supported them.”
A hands-on manager, Odom took an interest in every aspect of his business and was a familiar figure in his warehouses and garages. Says Davis, “I think he knew the price of every lug nut on every truck he owned.” When new equipment was needed or a new business prospect appeared, Odom rarely passed up the opportunity to make a deal.
Odom was born in Mississippi in 1908 and moved with his family to Deridder, Louisiana at the age of eight. At age twelve, he demonstrated the business acumen that would serve him so well—he hired someone else to deliver his newspaper routes while he worked in a meat market.
Odom graduated from high school in Longview, Washington and attended college until the Great Depression put an end to his college career. He began selling lumber, but with the economy falling to historic lows, soon realized he would need to find something else to market.
In 1930, Odom began selling drug products for McKesson, Stewart and Holmes, a pharmaceutical company and the fore-runner of today’s McKesson Corp. During Prohibition, McKesson had been licensed to make 100-proof bourbon, obtainable only from a druggist and by prescription. In 1932, the firm found itself with a large inventory of now-legal liquor but no desire to go into the liquor business. Management told Odom to dispose of its Pacific Northwest inventory.
Because the state of Washington had a monopoly on the liquor trade, Odom decided to try his luck in Alaska. After taking a steamship to Juneau, he found a ready market for McKesson’s medicinal bourbon in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Cordova, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Ketchikan.
The young salesman decided that Alaska offered opportunities for an ambitious young man. When he returned from Washington to Ketchikan, then Alaska’s largest city, he continued to sell McKesson products through a business he founded, Odom & Co. For the next few years, Odom traveled as far north as Fairbanks selling food and liquor.
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Bill Odom, one of Milt’s seven sons and now vice chairman and executive vice president of Odom Corp. of Seattle, says “Dad loved talking to people and dealing with people. He was a salesman. You might hear he was tough, but he was always fair and honest with people.
“My father had something you don’t often find today in business. When he went to a lodge or a restaurant to see a customer, he knew their business because he had done all of these things himself. He had been a cook and a meat cutter and had been in the freight business.”
In 1936, Odom entered a partnership called Anchorage Fruit and Produce. He renamed the firm Anchorage Cold Storage after buying out his partner. In 1937, Odom’s socializing led to one of the biggest breaks of his career. While on a trip from Seattle to Ketchikan, he fell into a conversation with the son of the chairman of the board of Coca-Cola. Odom decided to acquire a Coca-Cola franchise for Alaska and traveled to Wilmington, Delaware to meet the company’s president, James Curtis.
Curtis was astonished that such a young fellow—Odom was just twenty-seven years old—would apply for one of his company’s franchises. Nonetheless. Odom convinced Curtis that he could sell Coke in Alaska and obtained the Coca-Cola franchise for $1.
Alaska seemed like such a remote place to the Coke officials that they granted him an export license to save themselves shipping expenses. Odom later acquired franchise rights for 7-Up, Hires Root Beer, Dr. Pepper, Crush, and Canada Dry.
Anchorage Cold Storage saw its steepest growth during World War II: Coca-Cola was rated a priority item for servicemen, and the bottling plant on Fifth Avenue ran around the clock. Odom’s father sold his house and moved to Alaska to help run the bottling plant.
After the war, Anchorage Cold Storage moved to its present location at first Avenue and C Street. In 1947, Odom consolidated his business operations as the Odom Corp., with headquarters in Seattle.
As the country demobilized, the military move thousands of troops out of Alaska. Although Odom’s business slumped, he weathered the next few years until the discovery of oil on the Kenai Peninsula brought hungry and thirsty workers from Outside.
In 1960, Odom reluctantly became owner of bankrupt Alaska Freight Lines. Aiken says Odom took over Alaska Freight Lines to keep it going, primarily because the business owner wanted to prevent Alaska Steamship Co. from gaining a monopoly in Alaska’s maritime freight business.
Anchorage-bound freight typically was shipped to Seward and carried by train to Anchorage. Odom decided to build his own ice-breaking ship, using plating to reinforce the bow of a World War II missile-launching ship. He inaugurated winter service at the harbor dock in Anchorage with his tugs and barges that followed the icebreaker from Seattle. Four years later, Odom sold the marine freight business to Sea-Land Service.
In the late 1960s, Odom held a small interest in Air West, a commuter airline serving several Western states. A stockholders’ committee asked him to represent their interests with the Howard Hughes organization, which had promised to buy the airline at current market value.
After discovering that the Hughes people didn’t intend to honor their agreements, Odom sued. The litigation went on for several years before courts ruled in Odom’s favor. The $48 million settlement was one of few defeats for Hughes. Aiken, who was involved in the suit, says after the settlement, Odom absorbed the entire cost of the litigation personally.
Another 1960s challenge confronting Odom was the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, which hit the glass-intensive Odom Corp., hard, destroying eight of the company’s nine buildings. Odom estimated his losses at $4.5 million. Within six months, Odom Corp. facilities were rebuilt.
Odom became a partner with Governor Walter Hickel in the Captain Cook Hotel, built immediately after the earthquake. He also purchased a working cattle ranch, the 4-O, which spreads over 20,000 acres in Washington and Oregon. “If you had to pick a hobby for Milt, I guess the ranch would be it,” says Davis. Odom also loved to play cards, gin mostly, and attended World Series games many years.
In the 1970s, Odom organized Campo Pacific, a catering company to provide food for the construction crews working on the trans-Alaska pipeline. After the Alaska pipeline was completed, Odom launched a catering company in Venezuela that didn’t work out; he had to sell for a loss. In the early 1980s, the Odom Corp. weathered a three-and-a-half-year strike with the Teamsters Union.
Toward the end of his life, Odom, who died in 1988, spent winters in the warm climate of Hawaii for health reasons, but remained active in business affairs by telephone and fax machine. “Milt loved to talk about the old days. His health wasn’t particularly good—he had a lot of colds—but he got re-energized and left his affairs in order for his sons,” Davis remembers. Four of Odom’s sons now manage the company founded by their father.
“I’ve never met anyone like him,” Davis says. “He was not reluctant to take chances if he thought he was right. He liked a gamble, and he liked anything that would test his wits and let him be with people.”
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Few large foundations support “the general good” or social service projects in Alaska, so the Last Frontier has a pretty thin philanthropic layer, according to United Way of Anchorage Vice President Cassandra Stalzer. However, the oil and gas industry has a history of stepping in and filling the gaps in Alaska communities by providing money and volunteers for myriad charitable efforts in the state.