Milking The Cash Cow

L.A. entrepreneur persevered to head the nation's only black-owned dairy

Kevin Copeland’s got milk 330,000 gallons a day to be exact. President and CEO of Los Angeles-based Copeland Beverage Group Inc.(CBG), Copeland is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the largest fluid milk processing facility west of the Mississippi. But it took three business failures and harrowing financial problems for his entrepreneurial dream to come true.

“I learned my business ethic at home,” says Copeland, 38. He and four siblings grew up watching their single mother struggle to make the transition from welfare to work. “She showed us perseverance and hard work will pay off, no matter what.”

After graduating from high school in 1978, Copeland went to work at a local Dr. Pepper bottler. Three years later, he and two friends put up $20,000 to start their own soft-drink enterprise, AmeriCola. But competition proved stiff, and he sold his interest in the firm in 1985. The next four years resulted in two more unsuccessful startups, a celebrity promotional business and a seltzer water company.
By 1990, Copeland was struggling to support his wife, Monica, and their seven children. “I was beginning to feel that the American dream of business ownership was just a myth,” he says. “But, Monica encouraged me to stay the course.”

Inspired by reconstruction efforts after the 1992 L.A. uprising, Copeland revamped his business goals to include a commitment to community growth. He decided to try soft-drink processing again, and formed CBG. Around the same time, Hughes and Stater Bros. Markets were looking for a prospective buyer to take over the lease of Santee Dairies Inc.

Copeland approached the co-owners about the Santee facility, a 19-acre site containing 336,000 sq. ft. of building space and processing equipment. “Even though I was thinking of a soft-drink plant, they said they would leave $30 million in business on site if I stayed in the dairy business,” he says. He took the offer and structured a multimillion-dollar deal, but needed financing to make it work. “I applied to more than 50 financial institutions,” he recalls. “But, I was rejected by each and every one of them.”

Meanwhile, his family had to go on welfare. “We had no health benefits, and Monica was pregnant with our eighth child,” says Copeland, who also lost his mother and two siblings during that period. In 1995, they were evicted from their home. “I was separated from my family for almost a year.”

In late 1995, Copeland pitched his plan which would save about 125 union jobs and keep a tax-paying business in L.A.–to the LA. Community Development Bank. The bank’s $6 million loan agreement helped him secure another $2.5 million from GE Capital, a commercial equipment financing company.

Last June, CBG assumed the lease, assets and national distribution rights of Santee Dairies Inc., and brought in $400,000 in sales in only six months. Clients such as Baskin-Robbins, Arco’s AM/PM Mini Markets and Flagstar Corp. have contributed to a projected $38 million in contracts for 1998.

“This experience has strengthened my children’s faith in entrepreneurship and shown them they can accomplish anything

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