A New England Tradition
By JENNIFER ZEGLER
Polar Beverages marks its 125th anniversary with a look back - and forward
When pro sports teams get ready for a big game, the
local politicos often agree to a friendly wager over the game. At stake is not money or team pride per se, but the
area’s best known culinary exports.
This year, in the case of the New England
Patriots’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL AFC championship
game, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray paid the Hoosier state
in Polar Ginger Ale.
Though not as nationally well-known as clam chowder or
Boston baked beans, Polar Ginger Ale is a New England tradition. The
beverage dates back nearly a century as one of the premier offerings when
Polar Beverages was founded in 1882. This year, the Worcester, Mass.-based
company marks its 125th anniversary and celebrates the iconic Ginger Ale
that is now one of hundreds of products in the Polar portfolio.
As one of the largest independent soft drink bottlers
in the nation, Polar runs a complex business that includes more than 15
partner brands and multiple private label accounts. In addition, the
company owns the Polar brand of soft drinks, seltzers and mixers, as well
as Adirondack soft drinks and Polar Spring Water. As the company celebrates
this milestone, it continues to grow, making new partnerships as well as
extending its portfolio and distribution network every day.
For more than a century, the Crowley family has owned and operated Polar Beverages. The family
has grown the business, and at the same time, remained loyal to its
Worcester roots. Ralph D. Crowley Jr., president and chief executive
officer, and Christopher J. Crowley, executive vice president and
treasurer, are the fourth generation to run the company.
Polar Beverages began as a liquor and seltzer business
in Mass-achusetts. The great-grandfather of the current owners, Dennis M.
Crowley, purchased the business in 1916. At that time, the company imported
mineral water and bottled seltzer water and ginger ale. Following an
acquisition of a local water company, bottled water accounted for a large
percentage of the business and included the use of a spring in Spencer,
“We still own the spring in Spencer that our
great-grandfather purchased at the turn of the century, and our grandfather
was president of the water company,” Ralph explains. “The city
water at that time was not very good, so they would bottle the water in
Spencer and bring it to the city on horse-drawn carriages.”
The high-quality spring water led to an expansion of
beverages from its flagship Pale Dry Ginger Ale and helped the company
transition out of the alcohol business.
“Our great-grandfather put together a terrific
company until Prohibition dealt the company a financial blow,” Ralph
says. “By the end of Prohibition, they focused on the soft drink and
water business; and slowly the alcohol business seemed to go
Ralph explains Prohibition caused the business to
shrink, and it remained relatively small until the third generation of the
family, which included Ralph and Chris’ father and uncles, built a
new plant in 1969. Ralph Sr., Edward, Denis and James Crowley consolidated
Polar’s operations in 1968 into its current plant in Worcester.
“At the time they were probably selling 300,000
to 400,000 cases a year, which can be a day’s worth of production
now; and they built this plant,” Ralph says. “In the late 1960s
and early 1970s, Polar was only sold in Worcester and the surrounding
bedroom towns. The primary business was private label and a small amount of
Polar. They were able to land the A&P and Hood private label accounts,
and that was the catalyst to build a modern plant.”
Polar’s strong relationships with supermarkets
led to the growth of the Polar brand beyond Ginger Ale and Orange Dry.
Polar expanded the brand into soft drinks, seltzers and mixers. In the late
1980s the company began to look outside its proprietary brand and private
“We looked around in the ‘90s and Polar
was growing like a weed, but we realized we needed to broaden our
portfolio,” Ralph continues. “Starting when our [generation]
took over the company, we have doubled the size of the company every three
years, helped by completing more than 20 acquisitions.”
The company added 7 UP, Sunkist and A&W from
Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages; and in 1996, Polar Beverages acquired
longtime competitor Adirondack Beverages, Scotia, N.Y. Along with
Adirondack, Waist Watcher, Clear ‘N’ Natural brands and private
label accounts, the acquisition included a 600,000-square-foot production
facility. This provided much needed production space, which was at a
premium by that time in its Worcester plant.
The space squeeze also led to the company’s
search for a new headquarters. Despite many offers from neighboring states,
Polar Beverages opted to renovate an old plastics plant in Worcester for
its new headquarters.
“It’s been difficult to expand
here,” Ralph says. “We were being enticed by other states with
tax incentives, labor incentives and very inexpensive electricity, but it
was hard to say to our loyal employees, who helped us achieve the success
we enjoy today, ‘Thanks, but with our growth we can no longer afford
to stay in Worcester.’”
Not only is the Crowley family dedicated to its
Worcester-based workforce, it also is dedicated to the community in which
it has been a member for more than a century. The brothers are on many
boards, and the company offers its support to many charities and events in
“It’s such a great community and
we’re fortunate to be here,” Chris says. “Our father
really set the legacy [of involvement] with his brothers.”
Most recently, the company has continued acquisitions
and brand partnerships. In 1999, Polar Beverages acquired Venture
Distributing, a leading New Age distributor in the Boston marketplace with
brands such as Nantucket Nectars and Arizona. The company formed Northeast
Retailer Brands LLC with Cott Corp. in 2001. The company then acquired
Snapple of Boston in 2004, which brought Snapple, Glaceau’s
Vitaminwater and Hansen’s Monster Energy brands to the company
Complexity is key
Despite its more than 20 acquisitions in the past
decade, the company continues to expand its business model as well as
“We tried to build a business model that was so
complex that the competition couldn’t break us,” Ralph says.
“Our product mix is so diverse that
we’re not reliant on any one segment of our business to make a
Polar Beverages maintains relationships with each of
the three major soft drink companies through various brands.
“It’s an efficient business now,”
Ralph says. “If you look at the business model, we have the national
brands segment, so the primary partner there is Cadbury. Those franchises
include Sunkist, A&W, 7 UP, RC and Diet Rite. We’re the franchise
bottler for [Coca-Cola’s] Seagram’s mixers in the Northeast.
Interestingly, we have a relationship now with Pepsi because we’re
the Izze distributor, and for the time being, Gatorade.”
Add the company’s proprietary brands into the
mix and the product lineup is as varied as a beverage aisle. These multiple
partnerships extend the company into markets beyond its home in New
England. Not all of the brands in Polar’s portfolio are available
everywhere in its territory, which spans Massachusetts, New York,
Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. Some of its
products, including Waist Watcher, a calorie-free soft drink sweetened with
sucralose and acesulfame potassium, are available outside New England in
Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.
Integral parts of the New England tradition Polar has
created in its 125 years in business are its proprietary brands. Polar has
grown Adirondack since acquiring the company in 1996 to revenue in the $100
million range. The Adirondack plant in Scotia, produces 50 million cases of
Adirondack’s flavors, spring water, seltzers, sparkling water, Clear
‘N’ Natural and Waist Watcher brands.
As for its Polar brand, it boasts a dedicated regional
following. Ralph explains that Polar seltzers are among the top 30 items
sold in New England supermarkets.
“In New England, people are much more
traditional about their consumption habits,” he says. “If
you’re a retailer entering this marketplace and you don’t have
Polar, consumers take notice of that. There is a litany of brands that the
consumer here expects. We make the top 30 items in the supermarket.
Polar’s growth continues to outpace the industry. Unfortun-ately
CSD’s are declining. Luckily, we’ve been in double-digit growth
for brand Polar for a very long time.”
Until the early 1990s the stars of the Polar brand
were Ginger Ale and Orange Dry, which is a popular juice-added orange soft
“We have some very unique products,” Chris
says. “Orange Dry is basically orange juice, orange oil and
carbonated water. In typical orange soda there are 56 ingredients. Orange
Dry is a very simple, but very expensive product.”
Today the Polar lineup includes 49 flavors, seltzers,
mixers, diet options, Cape Cod Dry sodas and spring water. Crafted for the
New England taste, the offerings include Cream Soda, Raspberry Lime and
Birch Beer. Each variety sports a loyal – and even local – fan
base. Ralph explains that while Polar carries a higher price point than
Coke and Pepsi, specific flavors have regional pull. In Rhode Island, Birch
Beer takes up multiple facings in the supermarket in contrast to Gardner,
Mass., where Strawberry is a favorite.
“We’re the company with a selection of
flavors,” Ralph says. “We don’t try to take Birch Beer
and sell it in Gardner and we don’t try to take Strawberry and sell
it in Rhode Island. In this age, with as much consolidation as there has
been in the supermarkets, people feel stronger about their individual taste
than they ever have before and they want what they want.”
And the Polar brand continues to give customers what
they want with new flavor introductions, including a Pomegranate Dry and a
Blueberry flavor. Ruby Red Grapefruit soda will launch soon, and other
trendy flavors are in the works. Polar’s internal innovation team as
well as an outside advisory group generates new flavor and product ideas
and has come up with more new product ideas for this anniversary year.
“We have three pretty exciting new product lines
for launch in 2007,” Ralph explains. “There’s Polar
Classic and a couple others we’ll have to keep under our hat until
mid-summer. They’re very exciting.”
Polar Classic is a commemorative line created to be
part of the company’s anniversary celebration. Packaged in longneck
retro-style glass bottles, the line includes historic Polar memorabilia on
the labels. Both nostalgic and upscale, Polar Classic will be available in
Root Beer, Diet Root Beer, Vanilla Cream, Orange Cream and Black Cherry.
The proprietary lineup is just one facet of
as it also has partnerships with Cadbury Schweppes and Cott as well as the
bottling and distribution rights for Seagram’s for Coca-Cola and the
distribution rights for Izze for Pepsi-Cola.
“We’ve figured out that if you’re
the world’s tallest midget, you have to have big friends,”
Ralph jokes. “So we’ve worked hard to keep good working
relationships with our partners like Cadbury, Cott and our New Age brands.
Let’s face it, despite the growth we’ve gone through,
we’re still a relatively small company. In the scheme of things,
there aren’t that many independent companies like ours, so having big
friends is OK.”
The company’s partnership with Cott Corp.
extended its private label reach in the region. Polar manufactures a
majority of the private label products for retail supermarkets in its
distribution territory. Ralph explains the private label business is more
cyclical than the national brand business.
“Private label sales have cycles; the last time
it took it on the chin was late 1990s when Coke and Pepsi were in a price
war, and we were down 15 percent. We bounced back the next year,” he
The company also is active in the niches of CSDs in
some territories, including the rights to Moxie.
“We say from Maine to Florida, but it’s
really Maine and Florida,” says Gerald E. Martin, vice president of
marketing and sales for immediate consumption brands. “It’s
been a great brand for us that has a loyal base, and many consumers
consider it an acquired taste.”
Polar also recognized the shift toward functional
beverages in the late 1990s. This new market is an important area of
expansion for the company.
“I think we’re going through a sea change
now that we’re probably not going to return from,” Ralph says.
“The consumer is definitely looking for functional beverages, and I
think that’s going to be a permanent change to the
Following its success with Vitaminwater, the company
continues to look into the latest New Age products with recent deals with
HyDrive, a spring water-based energy drink by Inov8 Beverage Co., Rye,
N.Y., and O Beverages LLC, the maker of fruit-flavored waters based in
Though the Polar portfolio is vast, the company is not
ready to settle.
“Our goal is to remain the largest independent
and gradually expand,” Ralph states. “We want to outgrow the
industry. We have good strategic relationships with our retail partners and
the consumers, and hopefully we’re going to continue to meet their
From his post as head of immediate consumption, Martin
continually hears pitches from up and coming brands as possible additions
to the company. Contenders have to meet a variety of criteria in order to
join Polar’s lineup, including manufacturing options, geographic
territory and marketing support.
“We try to be fair with everyone, listen to
everyone’s pitch because you never know what the next Vitaminwater or
Snapple is going to be,” he says.
In addition to new partner brands, the Crowley family
has big plans for its proprietary brands.
“We want to expand our own brands,” Ralph
says. “Several Florida retailers have taken us in. Food Lion has also
authorized us. A lot of retailers like what we do, so we’re plugging away at that.”
With 125 years under its belt, there’s no
stopping Polar, or the Crowley family, now.
At a glance
Polar Beverages Inc.
2006 sales: More than $275 million
Years in business:125
Distribution area: Mainly in New England and Upstate
New York and in limited territories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina,
South Carolina and Florida.
Bottling facilities: 2
Cases produced annually: 100 million cases
Total facilities: More than 1 million square feet
between the two facilities in Worcester, Mass., and Scotia, N.Y.
Distribution facilities: 6
Changing with the times
The changes that have taken place during Polar
Beverages’ 125 years in business would be too many to list, but the
beverage industry – especially soft drinks – has seen major
changes and the evolving industry landscape is a concern. In addition to
the New England region’s bottle bills and escalating raw material
prices, the fingerpointing over childhood and adult obesity issues is a
focus. Ralph Crowley Jr., Polar’s president and chief executive
officer, recently finished his tenure as the head of the American Beverage
Association, which brought him to the forefront of the industry on such
“First of all, it was a real honor to have the
opportunity to chair the ABA,” Ralph says. “It was a pretty
transitional time for the industry. I think we accomplished a whole lot as
an organization during my term. Perhaps all the controversy and fighting
obesity finally got us to work much more closely together, more than we had
in the past.”
During his tenure, the ABA reached an agreement with
the American Heart Association, the Clinton Foundation and Arkansas
Governor Michael Huckabee on child obesity. The agreement with the Alliance
for a Healthier Generation is intended to educate children on calorie
consumption as well as exercise. In addition, the ABA previously agreed to
a new school policy on beverage options, which included limiting
full-calorie soft drinks to 50 percent of options in high schools. Beverage
options in schools also are turning toward more low-calorie beverages, such
as Izze sparkling juices and bottled waters.