It was Charles Coker who brought modern industrial and managerial practice to the family-controlled business. He established an industrial research and development program, developed a dedicated sales staff, and emphasized long-range planning.
Businessman, philanthropist, social reformer. The youngest son of James Lide Coker and Susan Stout, Coker was born in Hartsville on July 13, 1879. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Charles became involved in various Coker businesses at an early age, including the family mercantile store, J. L. Coker and Company, and the Carolina Fiber Company, which produced pulp paper. When the family organized the Southern Novelty Company in Hartsville in 1899 to manufacture paper cones for the southern textile industry from this pulp paper, Charles became its first treasurer and chief salesman. On October 15, 1903, Coker married Carrie H. Lide. The marriage produced two sons, James Lide III and Charles.
In his father’s declining years, Coker increased his management role in the company, and in 1918 he succeeded him as president, a position he held until his death. It was Charles Coker who brought modern industrial and managerial practice to the family-controlled business, which changed its name to Sonoco Products Company in 1923. He established an industrial research and development program, developed a dedicated sales staff, and emphasized long-range planning. The cone industry was difficult and competitive because it required only a limited capital investment and production was relatively easy and inexpensive. This fact forced Coker to be efficient in production and farsighted in technology. Marketing, at which he excelled, was all-important. In such a competitive industry Coker profited not just on the quantity of cones he could sell but also by insuring their quality. A key to success was industrial research to improve the company’s equipment and production methods. When rayon came into the textile industry, Sonoco responded successfully by developing a new type of cone to handle rayon spinning. Sonoco was closely tied to the textile industry, a fact that led Coker to seek diversification in product lines as well as overseas markets during the 1920s and 1930s.
Like other family members, Coker found time away from his business interests to fulfill what he felt were equally important civic and social obligations. He served as Hartsville mayor (1907–1908, 1917–1918) and as a state senator from Darlington County (1930). His special interest was in social work and welfare. He served on the state board of public welfare (1920–1928) and led the effort to establish social work councils in each South Carolina county, providing reform in such areas as public health, education, juvenile delinquency, transportation, and prisons. In 1930 President Herbert Hoover appointed Coker to the President’s Commission on Housing Relief. His efforts in social reform and industrial development ended abruptly with his death from a heart attack on November 21, 1931. He was buried in the First Baptist churchyard, Hartsville. Coker’s sons followed their father into leadership positions at Sonoco.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Coker, Charles W. The Story of Sonoco Products Company. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1976.
Simpson, George Lee, Jr. The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.