He started out in the 1960s as a Royal Crown Cola route deliveryman in Rome, Ga. By the time Jerry Smith had closed out his nearly four-decade career, he had helped propel the soft drink company into 65 countries around the world.
Smith, who retired as president of Royal Crown Cola International in 2006, died Thursday at his Columbus home at age 69. He had been battling pancreatic cancer about three years.
“Incredible dedication to the company, incredible dedication to the brands, incredible dedication to the people that worked with him,” Francis Lamprea said Friday of Smith, who guided his career straight out of college in 1977. Today, Lamprea is vice president of sales with RC Cola International.
“I appreciate the man tremendously. He was not only my mentor, but a friend of mine,” said Lamprea, who watched Smith excel as vice president of marketing with the company before being promoted to president of RC Cola International in 1991. Through it all, he said, the Columbus native was “a very fair individual, and knew the business upside down and inside out.”
But selling soft drinks wasn’t the only area in which Smith excelled in his life. In his senior year at Columbus High School, he played on the basketball team that won the 1962 Georgia state championship, leading the team in scoring and being named its most valuable player.
His hoops proficiency continued at Columbus College (now Columbus State University), where he led the basketball team to two conference championships. In 1999, Smith was inducted into the CSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
After transferring to Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he entered the Alabama Air National Guard.
In 1967, Smith started his job as a deliveryman with Royal Crown Cola, a company started in 1905 by Columbus pharmacist Claud A. Hatcher. Aside from the signature RC soft drink, several brands and flavors, including Nehi, were developed and marketed through the years.
Smith quickly left his sales route, however, shifting gears into RC’s international division in 1971, where he would remain through two key acquisitions. Royal Crown was bought by Cadbury Schweppes in 2000, while RC’s international business was purchased by Cott Beverages in 2001. Cott, with soft-drink concentrate development and manufacturing facilities in Columbus, is based in Tampa, Fla.
Smith’s career also included a relocation to Royal Crown’s Miami, Fla., offices in 1987, with the return to his hometown coming a couple of years before his retirement.
Nathan Laney, senior finance director with RC Cola International in Columbus, said Smith was a “true Southern gentleman” who knew how to handle major business deals on an international level in a quiet, unassuming manner.
“We sell RC in more than 60 countries around the world, and pretty much every one of those bottlers came on board with some connection to Jerry Smith,” he said. “We actually sell more RC Cola in the Philippines than they ever sold in the U.S.”
Laney said the owners of various overseas bottling companies would travel to Columbus simply to visit with Smith, even as his health began to deteriorate.
“Everybody loved him around the world, for sure,” he said.
Lamprea said Smith’s penchant for absorbing information and numbers were what made him an integral part of RC’s push outside of the United States in the 1970s.
“He had a great command of the numbers — what it would take to run a bottling plant, what it would take to do an introduction of a product, what would be the expected results from a marketing point of view, from a sales point of view,” said Lamprea. “He was a consummate soft drink professional.”
Away from Royal Crown, Smith’s involvement in the community included serving on the board of trustees of Pickett & Hatcher Educational Fund, a student-loan organization set up through the will of Hatcher, RC’s founder. He was a lifelong member of First Baptist Church, and a member of Columbus Consolidated Consultants.
Jerry Murl Smith was born Sept. 11, 1944, in Columbus to Louise Harden Smith and Grover Tiller Smith. He is survived by his wife, Peggy Blanchard Smith, and a number of family members.
A graveside service is scheduled 11 a.m. Monday at Parkhill Cemetery. Conducting the service will be First Baptist Church Pastor Jimmy Elder and Trinity Episcopal Church Rector Timothy Graham.