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Why Coca-Cola United CEO Mike Suco Can Thank Miles College for His Successes

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Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Inc.’s President and CEO Mike Suco has been with the company for more than 30 years. (File)

By Ryan Michaels | The Birmingham Times

(This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2022 issue of the Birmingham Times and has been updated following Coca-Cola’s announcement of plans to build $330 million campus in Birmingham.)

Mike Suco knows about stamina.

The CEO of Birmingham-based Coca-Cola Bottling Company United (CCBCU) is an endurance-sport enthusiast whose favorites are activities like long-distance running and triathlon. He has participated in about 10 or 11 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, as well as a couple of full Ironman races, considered to be some of the most challenging triathlons in the world.

Suco is also known for something else with staying power: He is also co-founder of Fiesta BHAM, Alabama’s largest celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage. And just last week he announced that Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Inc. will build a $330 million headquarters as well as its distribution operations in Birmingham’s Kingston community.

The new corporate headquarters will include a sales, distribution and warehousing center, region, division and offices, and a customer call center. The multifaceted CCBCU facility is expected to create up to 50 new jobs and retain more than 750 jobs.

“[The] announcement reflects our long-standing commitment to our associates, our customers and the communities we have the honor of serving,” said Suco, who added plans are to break ground this summer and take about three years to complete.

“It is through our strong relationships that we have arrived at this defining moment in our company’s history, and we are grateful to our local and state officials and partners for their support in our continued success,” he said last week.

According to Suco, the company, which began in 1902, is the third largest Coca-Cola Bottling Company in the country.

“Our story began more than 120 years ago in Birmingham, and with this investment, our story will continue for years to come,” said the CEO, referring to one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

According to CCBCU President and CEO Mike Suco, the company, which began in 1902, is the third largest Coca-Cola Bottling Company in the country. (File)

‘An Amazing Team’

Suco was the senior vice president and chief commercial officer at CCBCU when he was named in 2022 to succeed the company’s CEO, John Sherman. Suco, who has spent nearly 30 with Coca-Cola, is the eighth president and CEO to lead CCBCU in its 122 years of operations.

“We have an amazing team, and I believe intensely in our culture of shared leadership and our local operating model,” Suco said. “We have many opportunities in front of us for growth and success, and I look forward to carrying on the legacy of service to our associates, customers and communities that has been the foundation of Coca-Cola United for 120 years.”

Suco was born and raised in Jacksonville, Alabama. He is the son of José and Teresa, who together with Teresa’s parents and Suco’s eldest brother, Joseph, immigrated from Cuba in 1962, fleeing persecution during Fidel Castro’s control of the island nation.

“I’m one generation away from a family who lost everything,” Suco said. “If you don’t believe the United States is the greatest country that allows the greatest of opportunity, then I don’t know how to convince you any other way.”

But Jacksonville wasn’t their first stop.

After Suco’s father and grandfather, Manuel, were jailed for voicing their discontent with the then-government of Cuba, Suco’s parents fled to Miami with Joseph, then 13 days old, as well as Teresa’s parents.

“They each had one bag in their hands. That’s all the Cuban government would let you leave with. They left all their money, their homes, jewelry, everything, and went to Miami,” Suco said.

About 250,000 Cuban people emigrated to the United States in what is known as the “Golden Exile,” which spans from the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to October 1962.

Many of those emigrants found themselves in Miami, but the Sucos found their way to Central Alabama because Manuel, formerly a professor in Havana, Cuba, had a friend who was already working at Miles College in Fairfield.

That friend had taken to Birmingham because it reminded him of Cuba.

“Cuba is mountainous. There are a lot of beautiful mountains in Cuba, so (the friend) just loved Birmingham,” Suco said. “My grandfather drove up here and fell in love with Miles College, and he started teaching at Miles in 1963.”

Manuel persuaded José and Teresa to move close to Birmingham from Miami. Teresa studied at the University of Montevallo and earned her doctorate at the University of Alabama before she started teaching at Jacksonville State University, where she worked for 43 years.

José spent 30 years working for Big B Drugs, where he was both a store manager and district supervisor.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Suco lived with his parents and his two brothers: Manuel, named after his grandfather, and Joseph, named after his father. Suco didn’t feel that he grew up differently than other children in Jacksonville at the time, except that when you entered the Suco home, everybody suddenly spoke Spanish.

“It was like flicking a switch,” Suco said. “My friends would come over, walk through the door and be like, ‘What just happened?’ … It was a funny thing. I had two older brothers, so a lot of people knew about our family. … It was great.”

Mike Suco went through all three of the Jacksonville schools — Jacksonville Elementary, Jacksonville High and Jacksonville State University (JSU), where he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. (File)

Building His Own life

Suco went through all three of the Jacksonville schools — Jacksonville Elementary, Jacksonville High and Jacksonville State University (JSU), where he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

It was at JSU that Suco first met his future wife, Shelley Arnold, but it wasn’t until years after graduation that the pair would date and later marry.

After leaving the university, Suco began working in 1991 as a frontline salesperson at Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery in Fort Myers, Florida, where he worked his way up the corporate chain. During his time with the company, Suco would go back to Jacksonville every year for JSU’s homecoming. While he was working as an area manager for the winery in Miami, Suco and Arnold dated briefly until the relationship fizzled.

Their relationship eventually rekindled when Suco got a phone call from his mother, then still a professor at JSU, about someone he had dated in the past.

“My mom calls me and tells me there’s a girl in her class who says I used to date her sister. I said, ‘Well, who was it?’ She told me it was Shelley’s sister. (I said to my mother), ‘Well, find out if Shelley’s married.’ … So, Mother’s running middleman. She comes back and tells me, ‘She’s not married.’ I said, ‘Get her phone number,’” Suco recalled.

At that time, Suco was already interviewing for a position at Coca-Cola in Atlanta that would have him working in Birmingham. Suco and Arnold started dating long-distance before he began working for Coke in 1996. They married in 1998.

They have two children: Michael and Bella.

Man Of Sport

That climb was natural for a man of endurance who has always maintained physical fitness through running. When he moved to the Mt Laurel community in Shelby County, he got into the more-intense side of endurance sports. Residents of the community liked to run marathons, and he asked himself, “Why would you run, and nobody’s chasing you, for 26 miles?

“I ran a half marathon, and I did fairly well at it. I was pretty fast, so I had set a goal: ‘I’m gonna do one marathon, and I’ll just check it off my list’ — then I got the bug,” said Suco, who has since run in nearly a dozen full marathons.

Beyond the experience of running, Suco was inspired by the many stories of other people participating in high-intensity endurance events, particularly the stories of disabled people who have completed them. Suco himself lost vision in his left eye at age 7 and has had a prosthetic since his 30s.

While he was recovering from the accident that caused an infection in his eye, Suco recalled his mother never wanting him to use his eye “as an excuse.”

“When I was in the hospital, she would show me pictures of famous people that had a patch on their eye or that had a glass eye back then: Sammy Davis Jr., Sandy Duncan, all these artists and also some very famous generals. … I remember she would show me the pictures and say, ‘They’re OK.’ That was her way of making sure I didn’t allow that to define me going forward,” Suco said.