Alaska Business Hall of Fame Laureates: The Odom Brothers
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Alaska Business Monthly
Bill, John, and Jim Odom
As children, there never was any amount of doubt that Bill, Jim, and John Odom would work in the family business.
As each of the brothers grew, they took on age-appropriate tasks as as-signed by their father, Milt, the founder of what today is The Odom Corporation. Each of the Odom brothers talk fondly of their respective childhoods growing up in Anchorage and working after school and on the weekends at the Odom bot-tling and distribution facilities.
“I know nothing else other than working in the family business,” Bill Odom says with a note of pride derived from the accomplishment of a long-term goal. “It is the same for my brothers. I heard about the family business at the kitchen table, as did my brothers.”
During the formative years, the plants the Odom brothers worked at were not named after their family namesake. In those days, the Odom Corporation was operating as Anchorage Cold Storage. It was a burgeoning firm coming into its own in step with the city of Anchorage as Milt secured the rights to distribute many beverages and food products to Anchorage retailers. In 1937, Milt inked a deal with Coca-Cola, acquiring franchise rights for only $1. It paved the way for other consumer products that he added to the, liquor, coffee, tea, spices, meats, candy, and other dry goods he was marketing under Odom & Company. In the mid-1970s Milt created The Odom Corporation.
For his sons, the formation of a corporation was another step in the mentoring process their father had begun many years earlier. By the mid-1970s, Bill, Jim, and John were quite used to their father’s guiding hand.
“At an early age, my brothers and I were sweeping the floors, washing the trucks, and separating Coca-Cola bottles from the other bottles,” Jim says. “Our father always had ideas of how to do things better and more efficiently. He was inspiring.”
John as well remembers the inspiration he received from the trio’s father. He also remembers the correction he received when mistakes were made.
“I can remember sitting across his desk during meetings. Some were not so comfortable when I was getting reprimanded,” John says with a chuckle. Today he knows those moments were aimed at teaching and molding his busi-ness capabilities and character. “But my Dad was a tremendous mentor and it was inspirational to be around him and watch him build this company.”
That mentoring spirit remains a strong, key element at The Odom Corporation where the three brothers do much more than merely talk about responsibility to their customers and their employees.
“The employees are the number one asset in the company,” John says, noting Odom’s extensive training program that not only supports employee performance goals but prepares in-house workers for advancement. “We sell and distribute first rate products, which can only be done with first rate team members. This is a very important group of our company. As an employer, we are focused on hiring the best team members, providing them with excellent sticklers in an effort to keep all of their equipment operating in a safe and effective condition. At the same time this also prevents excessive overhead costs.
“We did not go out and just get the newest trucks and newest equipment and buildings,” Bill says. “We bought them as we could afford to and we kept them longer than most others would. We learned to appreciate what we have, and it is part of our corporate culture to not just go out and get something new to replace something just because it is old. It may work just fine. So we keep it and keep using it until it does not, but not until then.”
Bill says the corporation’s Ship Creek building complex is paid for free and clear. “We are not paying any rent and we are not making any payments on this building. That is a good thing.”
John says the brothers have chosen a rather “frugal” path in regards to the corporation’s physical resources. If an investment was to be made, it was made on necessary information technology as to help you stay on track, and that helps you in your day-to-day life with your family and friends and spills over into your business.”
John and Bill also note that a portion of their business—the distribution of alcoholic beverages—is highly regulated by state and federal authorities. That certainly aids in keeping Odom’s business above board, but Bill believes the firm has such a clean track record for one simple reason.
“We just do business in an ethical and upright manner,” Bill says. “For us, there simply is no other way of doing business. We just do not see how we could do something otherwise. We treat people fairly and we conduct business above board. We truly hope that today’s youth will grasp that lesson.”
Aside from supporting JA, The Odom Corporation, through the various drink products it represents and distributes, provides financial assistance to more than one hundred groups and charities training, and supporting them with the necessary tools to do the best job possible for our customers.”
Jim echoes this by stating he feels a responsibility to the employees to offer them continuing education that guides them in the type of business atmosphere and goals The Odom Corporation strives to achieve.
Education is where the trio believes that Junior Achievement (JA) gives its students a leg up in the real business world. They believe, as do the leaders of JA, that education today is the key to tomorrow’s success.
“One cannot achieve enough education,” Jim says.
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Frugality and Ethics
The brothers appreciate JA’s focus on frugality in the business place. It is one they apply to their own business, despite the temptations presented by the “latest” and “greatest” in equipment. Following again in their father’s shadow, the three brothers have opted to be maintenance that field improved in leaps and bounds in the management capabilities presented through its use. Another budget item for which the three brothers weren’t as conservative is their employees.
The three desire to set a high bar for their employees. This is particularly true in the area of business ethics—another topic regularly addressed by JA and one the Odom brothers hope today’s young people are learning.
“Honesty is a must in our company,” Jim says. “If young people learn one thing, they need to learn the value of honesty. If they are hard-working and honest in the way they conduct themselves, they will go far and be highly successful at whatever they do.”
John views the ethical lessons taught by JA as a daily guiding light that reflects the type of lifestyle one lives.
“It isn’t just something for the business world. I think it has to happen every day, beginning with your family,” John says. “You wake up in the morning and you have that certain guiding light in Alaska and its sales territory in the Lower 48. Locally, that support includes, but is not limited to various Little League organizations, the Iditarod, the Fur Rendezvous Festival in Anchorage, and the Mount Marathon Parade in Seward, as well as charities and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, Bean’s Café, Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics, Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, ALPAR, and United Way.
“As businessmen, my brothers and I have built upon the success of our father,” Jim says. “Being successful means we make a profit that we can put back into our community. We are able to achieve charitable goals through our private business profits. That message of responsibility is also one we see Junior Achievement bringing across to students.”
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Spreading the Word
When Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) first aired TV commercials featuring the tagline, “A Place That’s Always Been,” the reaction was surprising. Not only because they received numerous accolades and marketing awards for the campaign but because, at the time, it was rare for Alaska Native corporations to market themselves through the media.