WINCHESTER — As an eighth-generation Kentuckian, Ellen McGeeney knew she was taking on something special when she became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. But the Louisville native, whose family is from Henderson and Owensboro, didn't realize just how special.
In her first week on the job, a 20-something Lexington store clerk tearfully told her about his grandmother's recent death from dementia, and how, in her last months, the only thing that made her smile was Ale-8-One. Then he hugged McGeeney.
And there was the businessman McGeeney met at a networking event a few weeks later. When she introduced herself, he dropped to one knee and kissed her ring.
"There's a fervency about the brand in Central Kentucky," she said of Ale-8-One, the ginger-and-citrus soft drink that has been made in Winchester since 1926. "So many people speak about it as if it's theirs."
The Rogers family took a big step a year ago when it hired an outsider for the No. 2 spot in the company now run by Fielding Rogers, 33, the great-great-nephew of Ale-8-One inventor G.L. Wainscott.
McGeeney, 52, brought a lot to the company besides Kentucky heritage. A Brown University graduate with an MBA from Yale, she was a business consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton and other firms in New York and Boston, specializing in logistics, branding, marketing and online strategies.
Between the births of their second and third children, she and husband Christian Thalacker moved back to Louisville to be closer to her family. She helped start Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which sold fresh food from local farmers to customers around Louisville, and did strategy work for Rooibee Red Tea.
It was through the Louisville-based beverage company that she met Rogers, who was looking for someone to help him take Ale-8-One to the next level. McGeeney said the job is a perfect fit because it draws on all her skills.
"Literally, this is my dream job," she said. "I was ready to have a real career again, and I really wanted it to be in Kentucky."
McGeeney said another big attraction was the Rogers family's business values. The family wants growth, she said, but it must be steady growth, without peaks and valleys, because Rogers doesn't ever want to have to lay off any of his 100 employees. "He's extremely cognizant of the importance of good jobs in this community," she said.
Wainscott started in the flavored-drink business in 1902. He launched RoxaKola in 1906, naming it after his wife. But when Coca-Cola started suing small cola competitors, he realized he needed a special flavor all his own.
Wainscott went to Europe after World War I and bought ginger beer recipes to experiment with. He launched his new drink at the Clark County Fair in 1926 without a name. After a customer remarked that it was "a late one" in the already crowded carbonated-drink market, the name Ale-8-One stuck.
Ale-8-One has more caffeine and less carbonation than many soft drinks. Only four people know the secret recipe: Rogers, his brother and sister, and their father. Rogers now mixes the concentrate himself, using his great-great-uncle's handwritten notes.
Ale-8-One distribution is focused on Central Kentucky, where its own delivery fleet covers 27 counties. It is one of the few bottlers in America that still uses some returnable bottles, a popular tradition the company plans to continue.
"I like to say we're on the bleeding edge of obsolete technology," McGeeney said. "And we're very proud of it. We have invested a lot in making sure that that process is extremely safe and high quality."
Through contracts with other distributors, nonreturnable bottles and cans also go to most of the eastern three-fourths of Kentucky and parts of Ohio and Indiana. McGeeney hopes to gradually expand distribution, at least to all of Kentucky's 120 counties.
In addition to the original formula, Ale-8-One comes in caffeine-free and diet versions. While the original formula will "never, ever, ever" change, McGeeney said, she sees opportunities for additional beverages. She wouldn't disclose specifics, but said she would love to do a seasonal beverage made with Kentucky ingredients.
"If you're at a big company, you can throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks," she said. "We can't do that. We're David in an industry of Goliaths. We have to do it differently."
McGeeney said revenue growth has been up in her first year, to about 5 percent. Her goal is annual growth of 5 percent to 10 percent to keep the company financially resilient as the economy rises and falls. Ale-8-One doesn't disclose revenues or profits, but McGeeney said the balance sheet is strong and future expansion will be self-financed.
"One of the real luxuries of being a private company, from my perspective, is the long-term view," she said.
This spring, Ale-8-One did its first promotional packaging with a horse-racing theme. Football tailgate packaging will hit store shelves this week. Basketball packaging will follow that.
McGeeney hired a consultant to help refine Ale-8-One's brand strategy. It revolves around the ideas of Kentucky pride, family ownership and independence. The working slogan: "The best of the Blue Grass in green glass."
"I think there's a proud story there," McGeeney said. "We should be as much of a jewel of Kentucky as bourbon is. My fantasy is to get everybody in Kentucky to feel that way."