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Blair Carter, Carter Distributing's owner and chief operating officer, stands near kegs of beer stacked in a cooler at the company's Broad Street warehouse on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. He sold the family-owned business Friday for an undisclosed sum to a Knoxville company, Cherokee Distributing Co.
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Carter Distributing sold; Chattanooga's biggest beer distributor has new owner

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One of Chattanooga's largest beer distributors, family-owned Carter Distributing Co. — whose flagship brands include Miller, Corona and Coors — was sold Friday for an undisclosed sum to the family-owned, Knoxville-based Cherokee Distributing Co.

It was time to sell, said Blair Carter, Carter Distributing Co.'s owner, chief operating officer and son of the founder, Bill "Beer Bill" Carter.

Blair Carter has worked at Carter Distributing Co. for 43 years. He was 19 when he started in 1974.

"I've done it long enough. And I'm still young enough to where my wife and I can enjoy [retirement]," said Carter, 62. "I'm very happy."

Also, his late father, who died in January, left 25 percent of his ownership to his grandchildren.

"The only way they were ever going to see any money was if I sold the company," said Carter, who retained ownership of Carter Distributing's 100,000-square-foot beer warehouse at 1305 Broad St.

He has agreed to lease the warehouse for one year to Cherokee Distributing Co., with the option for a two-year renewal.

Carter Distributing Co.'s current employees will keep their jobs, Carter said.

"Basically, [Cherokee's] keeping the same staff," Carter said.

Ultimately, Carter plans to sell the warehouse that stands on more than 5 acres downtown.

"I probably have a call a month from somebody wanting to buy our property," he said. "It's a very sought-after piece."

The addition expands Cherokee Distributing Co.'s service area into Chattanooga and from 53 to 61 counties in Tennessee.

"Our companies share similar histories," Cherokee Distributing Co. President George Sampson said in a statement. "Both [are] Miller-Coors distributors and family-owned businesses. Cherokee Distributing was founded in 1958, and Carter was formed in 1959."

Carter said that Cherokee approached him about selling the beer distributorship, first in 2016 and then again early this year.

Carter Distributing Co. got its start in 1959 distributing products from two breweries, Miller High Life and Black Label, and has evolved over the years. Today, it distributes some 2,500 "packages" of different beverages from 51 suppliers.

In Tennessee, a beer, wine or liquor can only come from one distributor in a region. In Chattanooga, for example, Carter Distributing has a monopoly on Miller, Coors and Corona, while Budweiser products come from Budweiser of Chattanooga, a distributor located in Soddy-Daisy alongside U.S. Highway 27.

Craft beer — including locally brewed beer — is a growing segment for Carter Distributing, which employs some 70 people and distributes about 1.9 million cases of beer annually from its 100,000-square-foot warehouse, along with a relatively small amount of wine and liquor, which was a new market for Carter. Cherokee won't continue to distribute wine and liquor.

"We're excited to help grow local brands like Big River and Chattanooga Brewing Company," Sampson said in a statement. "There are many opportunities on the horizon, and we remain committed to offering a great work environment, delivering the highest quality products and serving our customers and the community with pride and excellence."

Cherokee Distributing Co. is headquartered in Knoxville and has distribution centers in Kingsport, Cookeville, Tullahoma and Pulaski.

The Knoxville company now will manage the distribution center in Carter's former warehouse on Broad Street in Chattanooga and serve the following counties in the area: Bradley, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, additional parts of Monroe, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie.

While many products overlap in the two companies' portfolios, Cherokee said the availability of some beer brands and other beverages will be specific to the respective regions. It will update its website to reflect the additional territory and specific products to be distributed across the 61-county service area.

Cherokee Distributing Co. has earned distinction for its philanthropy, Knoxville Chamber CEO and President Mike Edwards said in statement.

"Cherokee Distributing Company gives back to numerous organizations and events, and Tennessee is a better place thanks to their team," Edwards said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu @timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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