OTTUMWA — Finding someone who's been with the same company more than 30 years is becoming increasingly rare. Bob Gomez has enjoyed making pop for nearly 50 years.
"I'm never bored," said Gomez, 67, the production manager at Dr Pepper Snapple Group located near the Ottumwa Regional Airport.
New flavors (they make 65 right now), new people, small improvements that he's helped implement all add to the adventure of turning out soft drinks over the past 49 years.
"There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes," Gomez said, "to get the product to the supermarket shelf."
Much of what goes on is overseen by Gomez.
"Bob has been instrumental to the corporation," said Jim Murray, plant manager. "I have leaned on Bob because of his experience."
It isn't just how long he's been doing the job: Gomez is made for management, Murray said, from being willing to work as long as it takes to get the job done to his attitude toward associates. Even if someone becomes confrontational, Gomez stays calm.
"He's very even keeled," said Murray. "People look at Bob as fair."
If there is a downside to his calm, Murray said, it's that he made the production manager job look easy. So as junior managers step into higher positions anticipating Gomez's impending retirement, they discover just how tense the work day can be for someone responsible for getting millions cans of product out the door.
Many of the supervisors have been trained by Gomez, who likes connecting with a first-time supervisor, coaching and teaching them so that years later, he can see them training a new employee. But there's something he just can't instill in a young supervisor or an equipment operator.
"I learned a long time ago," he said, "you can't teach pride."
He likes putting out a quality product and doing it efficiently.
His job has been, in a sense, to overcome obstacles. There could be a shortage of cans, a broken machine, a storm in Kentucky that keeps the cardboard from making it to Ottumwa. During a tour of the plant, Gomez said customers don't want to know why their favorite pop isn't on the shelf. There are no good excuses for disappointing customers, he said.
"He handles stress very well. He can step back and analyze [a problem] without getting emotional," explained Murray. "He's a rock."
Bob Gomez is the type of man who would win the lottery and still come to work, ready to work, until they found a replacement, Murray said.
"That's loyalty," the boss said, adding that before retiring, Gomez "gave me one year's notice. Who else does that? He's an amazing guy."
Gomez is an Iowa farm boy from way back, he said. When the local bottling plant near Des Moines needed workers in the early 1960s, a friend of his dad called.
"Someone knew I was one of 19 children, so they must have figured, 'There's a pretty good labor pool.' I worked eight years as a union production employee."
He worked, but coming straight from an Iowa farm, he said, he had something of an advantage. He was told it'd be tough to toss the 20-pound wooden cases of soda around, but compared to throwing hay bales, that was nothing.
After eight years on the line, Gomez moved into management. He's been managing for 41 years. He likes what he does, he said, which is the only way someone can stick around so long. During his first 34 years, he helped produce more than 10 million cases of soda per year. For the last 15 years in Ottumwa, that number was above 30 million cases per year. The math says that's just over 820 million cases of pop. Murray said he feels comfortable saying Gomez has passed the point where he's assisted with the production of one billion cases of soda. That, Murray agreed, is a lot of pop.
"I tried to get him to stay one more year," he added, "make it an even 50 years."
But Gomez has plans. His wife is going to give him lessons, he said, in "domestic engineering." He'll have to learn what colors go with other colors into the washing machine and how to do a good job with a vacuum cleaner. When he gets a choice of chores, however, he'll do some gardening, a bit of landscaping. And yes, he said, when he gets thirsty, he'll still drink Dr Pepper. Not the diet kind, either — real Dr Pepper. He doesn't overindulge. He had a bottle of Deja Blue water at his desk Wednesday. Over the years, he's tried dozens of flavors, but Dr Pepper is still his favorite.
Oh, and by the way, advised Gomez: If you ever find a twist-off bottle cap giving you a hard time, get a good grip on the cap. Gomez demonstrated holding the cap in place, then placing the bottom of the bottle in his palm, gripping the bottom and then actually twisting the bottle. That gives you something a little more substantial to hold on to if you ever find yourself in a jam, he said.
What happens if Ottumwa's Dr Pepper Snapple Group gets into a jam? Not to worry, Gomez said.
"They have my cell phone number."
— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark
Correction: This article has been corrected. An earlier version misidentified the brand of water on Gomez's desk.