Got Moxie?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Copeland could be the poster child for the persistence-wears-down-resistance campaign. And on that poster he would undoubtedly be sporting a milk mustache.

A longtime soft drink salesman, Copeland is now the nation's only African American owner of a full-service dairy.

On May 1, his Copeland Beverage Group Inc. took over the former Santee Dairies plant on 19 acres in South-Central Los Angeles. Instead of colas with sizzle and attitude, Copeland now finds himself, somewhat improbably, producing milk and sour cream.

As a result, the young entrepreneur is having to make some adjustments to his game plan.

"I'm just getting used to milk," he said one recent afternoon in his temporary office near a towering milk silo at the 46-year-old plant. "Milk is a beverage I used to compete with."

Copeland, 37, had to overcome hefty obstacles in his years-long struggle to make the leap from beverage marketer to business owner. Along the way, he encountered apathy, skepticism and bureaucratic bungling. Not to mention riots and deep personal loss.

At one point, the effort became so costly and all-consuming that Copeland and his family were evicted from their home and forced to live for a time on welfare.

But, demonstrating the grit that helped him excel as a guard on the Lynwood High football team, the beefy executive has made it a habit never to take "no" for an answer. His experience offers hope for any entrepreneur who has heard that old standby, "You're too young," and its corollary, "You're too green."

Born on the edge of Watts in the Willowbrook community, Copeland got a lifetime of lessons in emotional fortitude from his mother, Ruby. When he was 2, his father walked out. For years after, welfare stamps bought food for Copeland and his four siblings.

Copeland's mother, who graduated from high school at age 15 as valedictorian, put a big premium on learning--for her children and herself. From the time Copeland was 5, she made him study the newspaper page by page every day.

In the late 1960s, she enrolled in a job training program and became a food service cook, saving enough money to move the family to Compton and, in 1972, to Lynwood. Copeland finished high school, but after six months at a junior college he ventured into the beverage world.

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"My mom instilled in me that I could do whatever I want to do," Copeland said. "She always believed in what I did."

For 15 years, he earned a reputation as an inspired seller of soft drink products. Among other things, he co-founded the defunct AmeriCola Beverage Co. in Carson (a broker-distributor that did business primarily in the inner city during its five-year run in the 1980s) and later headed up marketing at Fifth Avenue Seltzers in Industry. Along the way he also dabbled, with limited success, in event marketing.

His big dream, however, was to start a soft drink manufacturing company. Unfortunately, dreams do not feed growing families, and he and his wife, Monica, were already well along the way toward producing a lively brood that now includes seven sons and a daughter.

Starting in 1991, Copeland began spending most of his time attempting to rustle up financing. The devastating 1992 riots presented an opportunity because Copeland wanted to base his enterprise in the inner city, with on-site day care, training and a profit-sharing plan.

Copeland contacted Rebuild Los Angeles, the primarily private-industry effort to bolster so-called underserved areas in the wake of the riots. Over the next few years, Copeland said, "we were made a lot of promises and saw at least 50 sites."

But venture capital remained elusive. Meanwhile, Copeland went through every cent he had.

After the 1994 earthquake, he and the pregnant Monica were evicted from their home and forced to bunk with relatives for 11 months and use food stamps. About that time, Copeland's mother died. (Several years earlier, he also had lost an estranged brother, who died in jail of uncertain causes, and his sister, a longtime drug user who had quit, only to die of a heart attack at 40.)

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Copeland said he was sustained by an abiding religious faith and savvy advisors and benefactors. They included the late Yale Wexler, brother of cinematographer Haskell Wexler; Gene Page, an arranger for artists from soul great Solomon Burke to Whitney Houston; and Gerald Keller, former publisher of Beverage World magazine.

Copeland's big break finally came after Stater Bros. Markets and Hughes Markets Inc., co-owners of Santee Dairies, decided to build a state-of-the-art facility in Industry and abandon the aging South-Central plant.

In June 1996, Copeland approached Los Angeles Community Development Bank, an unusual public-private partnership formed in 1995 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and county of Los Angeles and various lenders to provide loans to businesses and create jobs in low-income areas.

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Bank officials, who liked the idea that Copeland's plan could preserve 80 or more inner-city jobs, worked with him for more than a year to structure a $6-million loan, at the time the bank's largest loan. (It has since been eclipsed by an $8-million loan to Richard Meruelo's TechSystems Group, a maker of custom office furniture.) In the process, bank officials requested some changes in his business plan.

"We needed assurance that the company's market share . . . would be sufficient to service the debt and generate a profit," said C. Robert Kemp, the bank's president and chief executive.

Santee Dairies agreed to continue to contract with the facility for cream and sour cream, since the new Santee plant would not have cream-processing equipment.

Copeland also found some experienced firepower for his five-member board, including Joseph Feghali, a former bank vice chairman.

Convinced that Copeland's enthusiasm and determination outweighed his inexperience as a plant operator, GE Capital, a division of General Electric Co., came through with $2.5 million to purchase the plant's equipment.

"He is a very dynamic, tenacious individual," said Tim Hyland, regional sales manager for GE Capital commercial equipment financing in Beverly Hills. Although GE Capital has a program devoted to minority and urban lending, Copeland's deal is not part of that. "In this case," Hyland added, "he happens to be an African American with a good business plan."

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Ultimately, Kemp said, the bankers were won over by the executive's commitment to give something back to the community and his desire to hire from the neighborhood.

Copeland's company is leasing the land and the building for 19 years at $1.8 million annually. Since last June, he has lined up additional contracts, giving him about $42 million in total sales commitments. Clients include Atlantic Richfield Co.'s AM/PM Mini-Markets, Baskin Robbins USA and Denny's restaurants in Southern California. A sour cream contract with Taco Bell is being negotiated.

The plant now has a payroll of 117 mostly union employees, which Copeland expects will grow to 300 by 2000 or so. Once the plant is solidly profitable, he has committed to setting aside 21% of the net for a profit-sharing plan.

Although his company has less than 5% of the Southland milk market, Copeland has high hopes. He envisions an alliance with a dozen other dairies across the country that would enable him to have a national presence. He has plans to make shelf-stable milk items that are more portable and convenient.

Copeland still expects someday to incorporate soft drink manufacturing. In the meantime, he said, "I want to be the visionary who makes things happen and grows things."

His joy at launching his business is tempered by one regret. "My mom was one of the keys of my whole life," Copeland said. "I wanted her to be here to see this."

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