Emily Brown Cotney – Buffalo Rock
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Matthew Warner & Peter Markoe
- Est. reading time: 4 mins
The 2,400-strong workforce now is better connected through an updated purpose at Buffalo Rock. Career-development programs at area schools, especially the University of Alabama at Birmingham, have company talent honing professional skills and achieving personal growth. In June the company celebrated the first anniversary of its self-driven Inclusion Committee which has spawned a women’s employee resource group and is launching another ERG for veterans.
It’s all part of the cultural transformation underway at this bottler and distributor of PepsiCo and other brands, the initiative led by Emily Brown Cotney. The company’s legal counsel since January 2007, she had the title of chief employee experience officer added to her letterhead last year. It’s been a seamless transition, she tells Vanguard in August from Birmingham.
“My background is heavily rooted in contract and employment law and shifting into the employee experience space has been a natural fit,” Cotney says. “I’ve always been passionate about our people at Buffalo Rock, so expanding into the employee experience arena has been a welcomed addition that’s allowed me to grow in new directions.”
Working through challenges
Buffalo Rock itself is growing, having endured COVID-19 and even posting some of its most impressive gains during the worst of the pandemic. It expanded its brand portfolio and began an ongoing company-wide infrastructure transformation. While it wasn’t spared the staffing issues that other employers encountered, Cotney says the workforce stepped up and helped sustain business.
“Our industry was essential, and our employee-partners were in every store, every day, making sure our products were available for the over 7 million consumers in our market areas,” she says. “It was incredible.”
To support growth, recruiting kicked into overdrive. Cotney notes a 60-percent decrease in job openings between the summers of 2021 and 2022.
“We’ve developed innovative ideas for recruitment and retention,” she says. “Reinventing the employee experience has also been a critical component to our company culture and will be to our future success.”
Foundational to this cultural transformation was an overhaul of the company’s purpose and core values, which guide how the company hires, evaluates, coaches, recognizes and rewards employees. Cotney says all teams are tasked daily with bringing these core values to life within the business.
One way the company activates its first core value of “we care for each other” is through benefits offered to employee-partners. She lauds the company’s employee benefits partner, Cobbs Allen, for providing Buffalo Rock with a first-class program that brings the sentiment to fruition. The benefits program is outstanding, she says, offering employee-partners coverage, care and stability that goes beyond a paycheck.
“Even in an evolving world, there will always be one solid truth,” she says. “Our people are our most valuable asset. Buffalo Rock cannot accomplish any of its goals without all the remarkable people who work here.”
People and processes
Buffalo Rock is also in the second year of a five-year $300 million-plus facilities investment. Last year, a $100 million office space and distribution warehouse covering around 900,000 square feet opened on a 70-acre tract off Birmingham’s Lakeshore Parkway. More recently, a 200,000-square-foot sales and distribution facility opened in Huntsville along the Interstate 565 corridor.
“Working through these large real estate investments was quite an undertaking,” she says. “Watching these state-of-the-art facilities come to life from beginning to end has been so rewarding. Operationally, these facilities are top-notch, but the employee experience components in each of them will blow you away.”
Distribution has been enhanced with a new high-speed automation system, the largest in North America. In addition to the supply chain advancements, this transformation creates room for advancement in other areas.
“The infrastructure upgrades give us the opportunity to consider flexibility within our manufacturing operations that would not have been possible before,” Cotney says.
There is a quote on the wall in the Buffalo Rock office from James C. Lee, Jr., that reads that if your business is not evolving, you are already behind. Cotney says she takes that quote to heart, believing that one of the only constants in a post-pandemic world is change.
Embracing an expanding role
While the work has been moving at a breakneck speed, Cotney says she welcomes each project as she has so many others since joining Buffalo Rock after graduating Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.
“There’s no breather yet,” she says with a laugh. “While many of the projects are ongoing, including the inclusion initiatives and educational academies, they are still in their formational stages. We are working to build lasting and sustainable programs at Buffalo Rock. We want to be as diverse as the community we serve, and we want people to come to Buffalo Rock to build a career.”
A Talladega native and daughter of a family business owner, Cotney earned her undergraduate degree in business administration and marketing from Auburn University. Her intent was always to assist a company through the legal lens, and she’s grateful to have been doing so for more than 15 years. Adding the personnel lens during a pandemic took some pivoting but, to Cotney, it’s also helped keep the job interesting.
“No two days are the same, that’s for sure,” says the married mother of two small daughters and a son. “But I feel very fortunate to be able work with such great people at a family company where there are so many employee-partners with a lifetime of longevity with the company. It really speaks volumes about what the four generations of leaders in this company have created and what we are working so hard to sustain and continue to strive toward every day.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall III 2022 Edition here.
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