Preserving the Walton Beverage legacy

Walton family dedicated to the business their grandfather cherished

For those working and/or living in Whatcom County, Walton Beverage trucks traversing our roads and freeways is a common sight. The company has served the region’s business community longer than most of us have lived, as a fourth generation of Waltons now manages the family-owned company — a generation that is dedicated to preserving a legacy handed down from one generation to the next for the past 93 years. 

What started as a simple purveyor of fresh fruits and vegetables is today the second largest independent Pepsi, Dr Pepper and 7UP bottler/distributor in
Washington state. 

The journey from produce to soda

In 1931, Harry Walton and two sons, Charlie and Harold, formed Bellingham-based Walton Fruit Company. Fresh fruits and vegetables were picked up in Seattle and trucked to Bellingham. Of the three, Harold was the most passionate, and the driving force behind the company. Not long after it was founded, Charlie dropped out of the business.

At the suggestion of a franchisee, in 1940 Harold added 7UP to the company’s offering. At the time, 7UP was the largest soda brand, though primarily considered a mixer. Eventually, other soda brands were added. Finding his niche as a beverage distributor, Harold renamed the company Walton Beverage and quit selling produce.

In 1941, Walton Beverage became an independent bottler/distributor of Pepsi, Dr Pepper, 7UP and other sodas. The company purchased the concentrates, made the soda to the required specifications, and bottled and distributed the finished product.

In the early days, flavored pops such as strawberry, grapefruit and root beer were the most popular.

“In about the late 1960s, early ’70s, colas became the beverage of choice, and the flavored pops went by the wayside,” explained John Walton, current president and grandson of founder Harry Walton. “7UP transitioned from a mixer to a soft drink. Then the historic advertising campaigns started, and sales of pop took off.”

In 1971, the soda industry introduced aluminum cans, which many independent bottlers, including Walton Beverage, were not set up to fill. Canned beverages became prevalent, so in 1980, Walton Beverage joined a co-op of independent bottlers in Washington.

“Many of us independents were too small to put in our own can line,” John Walton said. “It was too expensive. In the past, Pepsi bottled in the bigger cities, and for the smaller, more urban areas, bottling was franchised to independent facilities. Over the years, Pepsi has been buying the smaller independent bottlers. There are now only six of us in Washington.”

Creating a family legacy

In 1955, Harry passed ownership of the business to his son Harold, who dedicated his life to ensuring his family namesake flourished. He continued to run the company until his death in 1989. Ownership then passed to Harold’s two sons, the third-generation Waltons: Jerry, who managed a distribution center in Burlington until his passing in 2011, and John, who became president in 1998.

Today, the company is managed by an all-female team of Waltons. Though John still serves as president, operational responsibility is the purview of his three daughters, Angela, Joanie and Patti Walton, who have an ownership stake in the company. The sisters also lead the Walton Beverage Board of Directors.

According to multiple published studies, just 3-4% of family-owned businesses survive into the fourth generation and beyond. Walton Beverage is bucking that trend. Under the sisters’ management, business doubled over the past five years. They attribute their success in part to the strong work ethic modeled by both their grandfather and father and to the strict upbringing and workplace policies John set for his daughters.

“We’re who we are today because working here wasn’t a free ride,” Angela Walton said. “We had managers we learned from. We weren’t allowed to get away with anything. We followed the same rules as other employees.”

When younger, the sisters didn’t plan to have lifelong careers in the family business; their roles in the company happened intrinsically.

“It’s just something we were involved in at an early age,” Angela explained. “We grew up going to Dr Pepper and 7UP conventions. Dad would bring us in on Saturdays when he worked, and we’d run around pretending to be secretaries. I’d walk there after school and help until Dad took us home for the day. It was a second home.”

To teach them the value of work, during their high school years, John required that the girls have jobs. Angela and Joanie worked part time at the company. Their first job was hand-counting bills and rolling coins from the vending machines.

“I was grateful for the skills I learned with our employees who mentored us when we were younger,” Joanie Walton said, “but I thought I’d go out into the ‘real’ world and find my identity outside of the company. But an invisible force pulled me here. I’m in it for the long run.”

Patti Walton joined the company when she was 19. She was active in basketball, which gave her a reprieve from working during high school.

Working in the multi-generational business gave the Walton sisters an even better understanding of who their grandfather was and the many ways he influenced their lives, both in and out of the workplace. Joanie described him as humble. He came to work in the same clothes and drove the same car. She notes the family doesn’t do “flashy” and is down to earth because of his influence.

“He was very generous,” Angela said. “He would pick a table at a restaurant and quietly pay their bill but didn’t want recognition for it. He did that everywhere we went.”

Patti added: “He could teach without even talking. When he did talk, his words were especially impactful.”

Currently, both Angela and Joanie work in accounts payable. They don’t hold executive titles, and they share an office. Their grandfather didn’t value titles, nor is it important to them. Patti isn’t a full-time employee but does project work as needed.

For John, his daughters managing the company is a dream come true.

“This is the most fun period of my life,” he said. “The girls contend with the daily challenges. They can
certainly operate without me. We’re really blessed.” 

Overcoming challenges through the generations

While Walton Beverage is a highly successful business today, the company faced some potentially disastrous challenges over the decades.

Not long after the company started bottling soda, sugar rationing was implemented during World War II. Lacking the sugar needed to create syrup meant the company would not be able to produce soda. Harold decided to distill potatoes and use the resulting syrup as a sweetener. Eventually, 7UP discovered that Walton Beverage was not following their recipe and showed up to try to forcibly shut down production.

More recently, it was the labor shortage caused by the COVID-19
pandemic. Between the shutdowns and pandemic money payouts, there was a lack of laborers willing to work in the warehouse. Luckily, the administrative staff and the sales team jumped in to help.

“We advertised at Western, on the radio and had big banners affixed to the sides of the trucks,” Joanne said. “Not many applied. If we can’t pick and load products onto trucks, orders don’t get delivered. We all worked as a team. People worked late hours, doing work outside of their roles. If it weren’t for our efforts, the product wouldn’t have gone out.”

Angela agreed.

“We’re so grateful the whole team came together to keep the business going,” she said.

Though they pay competitive wages, filling positions in the warehouse, merchandising, vending and driving remains difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ever-changing marketplace has been and will continue to be a challenge going forward, John Walton said.

“When my brother and I ran the company, we had three wholesale suppliers we purchased from – Pepsi, Dr Pepper and 7UP,” he said. “As the marketplace and our product mix changed over the years, we now have over 100 suppliers my daughters manage.”

Planning for the fifth generation

Today, Walton Beverage is headquartered in Ferndale, employs 130 people, has 50 delivery trucks and services 1,400-plus customers throughout Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties. The Walton sisters are preparing for projected growth, including a 50,000-square-foot addition that will nearly double the size of the current facility.

Though they’ve been approached, the sisters have no plans to sell the business. However, Angela said that succession planning will be important for the fifth generation, because there are seven children among the three sisters.

Harold never had a succession plan and repeatedly said they should sell the company after he passed, but it’s important to the sisters to continue the legacy their great-grandfather started and their grandfather made prosper.

“We were very close to our grandpa,” Angela said. “At the end, he came to work with catheters, in pain, with swollen feet barely able to walk. We are trying to keep this business going because it meant everything
to him.”