Mike Suco knows about stamina.
The CEO of Birmingham-based Coca-Cola Bottling Company United (CCBCU) is an endurance-sport enthusiast whose favorites are activities like long-distance running and triathlon. He has participated in about 10 or 11 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, as well as a couple of full Ironman races, considered to be some of the most challenging triathlons in the world.
Suco is also known for something else with staying power: Fiesta BHAM, Alabama’s largest celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage, which holds its 20th annual celebration at Linn Park on Saturday, Sept. 24. This year’s theme is ¡Somos Familia! (Feels Like Family!), and Alabama Power is among the many supporters of the event.
As one of Fiesta’s founders, Suco, along with other members of the Hispanic Business Council (HBC) of the former Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, decided to put together an annual festival celebrating the diversity of culture in Hispanic nations. That was in 2001.
“It’s really exciting to see that it has not only survived, but it has thrived,” Suco said. “It has really grown and turned into something even bigger than I think any of us could have imagined.”
He and other HBC members started the festival because of their pride in their individual cultures and because many non-Hispanic Americans aren’t aware of the differences among Hispanic nations’ cultures, he said.
“People would hear (my family) speak Spanish, and they assumed that we were from Mexico,” said Suco, who is Cuban-American. “It’s no different than we speak English here, and they speak English in Britain. They’re different cultures, right?”
Witnessing the vast diversity “of culture around the world is helpful in promoting acceptance,” Suco said.
“Wherever you grew up or whatever your background is, there’s a whole world out there of people that have different beliefs, have different views, have different foods, cultures, religions — all of those things,” he said. Fiesta “opens the door for us to be just more accepting of each other and to accept differences as a positive thing.”
‘An amazing team’
Suco was the senior vice president and chief commercial officer at CCBCU when he was named earlier this year to succeed the company’s CEO, John Sherman, who retired at the end of July but remains on the company’s board of directors. Suco, who has spent more than 26 years with Coca-Cola, is the eighth president and CEO to lead CCBCU in its 120 years of operations.
“We have an amazing team, and I believe intensely in our culture of shared leadership and our local operating model,” Suco said. “We have many opportunities in front of us for growth and success, and I look forward to carrying on the legacy of service to our associates, customers and communities that has been the foundation of Coca-Cola United for 120 years.”
CCBCU is the second-largest privately held Coca-Cola bottling company in North America and the third-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the United States.
Suco was born and raised in Jacksonville, Alabama. He is the son of José and Teresa, who together with Teresa’s parents and Suco’s eldest brother, Joseph, immigrated from Cuba in 1962, fleeing persecution during Fidel Castro’s control of the island nation.
“I’m one generation away from a family who lost everything,” Suco said. “If you don’t believe the United States is the greatest country that allows the greatest of opportunity, then I don’t know how to convince you any other way.”
But Jacksonville wasn’t their first stop.
After Suco’s father and grandfather, Manuel, were jailed for voicing their discontent with the then-government of Cuba, Suco’s parents fled to Miami with Joseph, then 13 days old, as well as Teresa’s parents.
“They each had one bag in their hands. That’s all the Cuban government would let you leave with. They left all their money, their homes, jewelry, everything, and went to Miami,” Suco said.
About 250,000 Cuban people emigrated to the United States in what is known as the “Golden Exile,” which spans from the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to October 1962.
Many of those emigrants found themselves in Miami, but the Sucos found their way to Central Alabama because Manuel, formerly a professor in Havana, Cuba, had a friend who was already working at Miles College in Fairfield.
That friend had taken to Birmingham because it reminded him of Cuba.
“Cuba is mountainous. There are a lot of beautiful mountains in Cuba, so (the friend) just loved Birmingham,” Suco said. “My grandfather drove up here and fell in love with Miles College, and he started teaching at Miles in 1963.”
Manuel persuaded José and Teresa to move close to Birmingham from Miami. Teresa studied at the University of Montevallo and earned her doctorate at the University of Alabama before she started teaching at Jacksonville State University, where she worked for 43 years.
José spent 30 years working for Big B Drugs, where he was both a store manager and district supervisor.
Growing up in Jacksonville, Suco lived with his parents and his two brothers: Manuel, named after his grandfather, and Joseph, named after his father. Suco didn’t feel that he grew up differently than other children in Jacksonville at the time, except that when you entered the Suco home, everybody suddenly spoke Spanish.
“It was like flicking a switch,” Suco said. “My friends would come over, walk through the door and be like, ‘What just happened?’ … It was a funny thing. I had two older brothers, so a lot of people knew about our family. … It was great.”
Building his own life
Suco went through all three of the Jacksonville schools — Jacksonville Elementary, Jacksonville High and Jacksonville State University (JSU), where he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
It was at JSU that Suco first met his future wife, Shelley Arnold, but it wasn’t until years after graduation that the pair would date and later marry.
After leaving the university, Suco began working in 1991 as a frontline salesperson at Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery in Fort Myers, Florida, where he worked his way up the corporate chain. During his time with the company, Suco would go back to Jacksonville every year for JSU’s homecoming. While he was working as an area manager for the winery in Miami, Suco and Arnold dated briefly until the relationship fizzled.
Their relationship eventually rekindled when Suco got a phone call from his mother, then still a professor at JSU, about someone he had dated in the past.
“My mom calls me and tells me there’s a girl in her class who says I used to date her sister. I said, ‘Well, who was it?’ She told me it was Shelley’s sister. (I said to my mother), ‘Well, find out if Shelley’s married.’ … So, Mother’s running middleman. She comes back and tells me, ‘She’s not married.’ I said, ‘Get her phone number,’” Suco recalled.
At that time, Suco was already interviewing for a position at Coca-Cola in Atlanta that would have him working in Birmingham. Suco and Arnold started dating long-distance before he began working for Coke in 1996. They married in 1998.
The CEO began his career with the Coca-Cola System in 1996 as a market development manager for The Coca-Cola Company. In 2000, Suco joined CCBCU, a privately owned bottler for Coca-Cola based in Birmingham. Over more than two decades with the company, Suco held numerous management and executive positions.
Man of sport
That climb was natural for a man of endurance who has always maintained physical fitness through running. When he moved to the Mt Laurel community in Shelby County, he got into the more-intense side of endurance sports. Residents of the community liked to run marathons, and he asked himself, “Why would you run, and nobody’s chasing you, for 26 miles?
“I ran a half marathon, and I did fairly well at it. I was pretty fast, so I had set a goal: ‘I’m gonna do one marathon, and I’ll just check it off my list’ — then I got the bug,” said Suco, who has since run in nearly a dozen full marathons.
Beyond the experience of running, Suco was inspired by the many stories of other people participating in high-intensity endurance events, particularly the stories of disabled people who have completed them. Suco himself lost vision in his left eye at age 7 and has had a prosthetic since his 30s.
While he was recovering from the accident that caused an infection in his eye, Suco recalled his mother never wanting him to use his eye “as an excuse.”
“When I was in the hospital, she would show me pictures of famous people that had a patch on their eye or that had a glass eye back then: Sammy Davis Jr., Sandy Duncan, all these artists and also some very famous generals. … I remember she would show me the pictures and say, ‘They’re OK.’ That was her way of making sure I didn’t allow that to define me going forward,” Suco said.
Tickets to Fiesta BHAM 2022 are $12 online and $15 at the gate; admission is free for children 12 and younger. Event attendees are urged to buy tickets before the event at fiestabham.com. Donations to the Fiesta BHAM Scholarship Fund are encouraged at the event.
This story originally was published by The Birmingham Times.