John T. Lupton, 83; created Coca-Cola bottling empire

By Peter S. Goodman
New York Times / May 20, 2010

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NEW YORK — John T. Lupton, who transformed his family bottling business into a big piece of the Coca-Cola soft drink empire and then helped revitalize the city where he was born, Chattanooga, Tenn., died Sunday at his home in Lookout Mountain, Tenn. He was 83.

Mr. Lupton died after a long illness, said his son, Cartter, of Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

The bottling business that secured Mr. Lupton a place on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans was started by his grandfather and a pair of partners in 1889 — they paid a dollar for the right to bottle Coca-Cola — and then handed down to his father. What became JTL Corp. grew over the decades into one of the largest bottling operations in the world, mostly through sales of a single brand: Coca-Cola.

After his father died in 1977, Mr. Lupton assumed the chairmanship of JTL, leading the company on an aggressive expansion campaign as he acquired bottling plants in Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona.

When none of his four children showed interest in taking over the family business, Mr. Lupton sold it to Coca-Cola in 1986 for about $1.4 billion. By then, JTL was responsible for roughly 13 percent of Coke’s sales in the United States.

After he failed to secure the chairmanship of the soft drink conglomerate, Mr. Lupton instead turned his attention to reviving the fortunes of his hometown, which had gained an unsavory reputation for air pollution and neglect.

Mr. Lupton played a crucial role in developing the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga — with the Lyndhurst Foundation, begun by his father, investing more than $20 million. The attraction opened in 1992. He also played a major role in the construction of the Tennessee Riverwalk, a downtown promenade that furthered the city’s return.

An avid golfer, Mr. Lupton took particular pride in helping finance the Honors Course, a golf course near Chattanooga that has been celebrated in national magazines. He served on its nine-member governing board, though in practice it functioned as a body of one — a reality celebrated in a mock portrait that hangs in the clubhouse: the nine members, each topped by a head shot of Mr. Lupton.

John T. Lupton was born in Chattanooga on July 23, 1926. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he worked briefly in the textile industry before joining the family business in 1948, first as a loader at a bottle-washing facility in Georgia and then in the management ranks. From 1956 to 1982, he served on the Coca-Cola board.

In addition to his son, Mr. Lupton leaves his wife, Alice; three daughters, Margaret Lupton Gerber of Memphis, Katherine Lupton Juett of Dallas, and Alice Lupton Smith of Lookout Mountain; his brother, Joe Henderson; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.