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Cheerwine CEO leaving his post

By Paris Goodnight

Salisbury Post

After 27 years with Cheerwine, Mark Ritchie is leaving his position with the family business to pursue a career in Christian teaching.

Ritchie’s last day as president and CEO of Carolina Beverage Corp. will be March 2. He announced the move to employees Friday, and the company is mailing a letter to customers this week detailing the changes.

Ritchie said he’ll be doing full time what he’s done part time at St. John’s Lutheran Church for years: teaching and facilitating Christian spirituality.

“I don’t envision my teaching being in a formal classroom,” he said Wednesday, adding he’s not going to seminary but will likely be a student learning more about how to be a good teacher.

Ritchie, who will turn 50 in 2007, said he made the decision about five years ago and has been working with his brother, Cliff, to create a smooth transition at Cheerwine for quite some time.

Cliff Ritchie is president and CEO of Cheerwine Bottling Co., the production and distribution arm of the family business. Carolina Beverage Corp. handles marketing and licensing for Cheerwine and the other brands the company owns.

“Cliff and I have worked quietly for two years to figure out the structure,” Mark Ritchie said. “It’s the best time, in the time since I’ve been here, for this type of change. We’re well staffed in upper management.”

If the board of directors approves, Cliff Ritchie will take over the helm at Carolina Beverage Corp. Mark Ritchie has held the top position at Carolina Beverage Corp. since 1992.

They’ve hired two key employees, Tom Barbitta and Mac McQueen, to help in the transition. Barbitta, who has more than 25 years of experience, is vice president of marketing, and McQueen, with 22 years with Unilever, is vice president for trade.

McQueen is also the great-grandson of L.D. Peeler, founder of Cheerwine, making him a cousin of the Ritchie brothers.

Two other important managers are Mike Bauk, chief financial officer of Cheerwine Bottling, and Tommy Page, chief financial officer of Carolina Beverage Corp.

Cliff Ritchie started his career with the distribution side of Cheerwine in 1978, a year before Mark joined the business. In those days, Cheerwine was bottled in Salisbury; had two warehouses, 55 employees and 10 routes; and produced slightly less than than a million cases of Cheerwine a year.

Now, the company has 400 workers with 10 warehouses, 160 routes and five bottling lines at a Charlotte plant. It produces 30 million cases of soft drinks annually, along with Blue Mist water and its newest addition, Savage Energy, which was unveiled earlier this month to compete with Red Bull and other energy drinks.

Some of that growth came with big acquisitions, one in Greenville, S.C., in 1994 that doubled the company’s distribution and another in 1997 in Greensboro that boosted the operation even more. The company serves the Carolinas and parts of Georgia and Virginia.

“We have no plans for acquisitions,” Mark Ritchie said. “The family business is still very healthy, and I’m committed. I’m still on the board and a shareholder. I’ll still be available to counsel when needed. I just want to dedicate full time to my new career.”

He said the seed for his new avocation was planted long ago. He remembers telling his roommate 25 years ago that he was going to be a teacher.

Actually, his stint in the business world was probably more unlikely than his latest move, he said.

“I’ve enjoyed my time with the company, and I have no regrets,” he said. “It’s served me well and taught me a great deal and prepared me for this.

“I’m looking forward to it, and I expect it to be rewarding.”

As for exactly what he will be doing next, he’s not really sure.

In his letter to customers, Mark wrote, “I will be taking a few months off to determine how best to apply my calling to teach Christian spirituality within mainstream churches. By the fall, I will likely be enrolled in classes to learn more about the foundation of my own beliefs as well as how to counsel others. I will also be facilitating more group and individual spiritual dialogue that I’m already involved in.

“I don’t think I will have any dull moments in this new direction, either, as I follow my longtime desire to teach and, hopefully, help others find deeper meaning in their lives.”

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Contact Paris Goodnight at 704-797-4255 or pgoodnight@ salisburypost.com.

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