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MODESTO — Tony Varni began working about the same time he learned how to read. While his friends watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, Varni went with his dad at 7 a.m. every weekend to the family’s Modesto-based beverage and bottling distribution plant.
“I was literally sweeping the floors and cleaning bathrooms when I was 6 years old,” said Varni, president and CEO of Varni Brothers Corporation.
Varni Brothers celebrates its 80th anniversary this year as a bottler and distributor of 7-Up, a franchise Varni’s grandfather purchased in 1936. Since then, the firm has grown to include the production and distribution of its own brand, Noah’s spring drinking water, along with other well-known beverages including Rockstar energy drink, Cock ’n Bull ginger beer and a host of other beverages including a variety of wines.
The youngest of seven children, Varni grew up in the business. By the time he was 11, he was working on the bottling line weeding out unclean or chipped bottles. At 13, he operated some of the production equipment. When he got his driver’s license, he drove a truck delivering soft drinks and beer to distributors.
He believes his early exposure to the business world and the work ethic of his older family members created a strong foundation for his career.
“I learned a lot from the generation above me: the hard work, the importance of quality and the importance of efficiency,” he said.
After earning bachelor’s’ degrees in history and sociology from the University of California, Davis, Varni attended law school for just a semester before realizing his passion remained within the heart of the family’s operation.
Varni returned to Modesto and started in quality control as a third-generation family member. He subsequently worked in every aspect of the business from operations and production to sales and delivery.
Combined with the skill set he began developing in early childhood, his well-rounded on-the-job experience gave him an understanding of an industry that has undergone drastic changes over the past three decades.
“What that has given me is a mindset where I’m aware of the changes in our industry and willing to adapt and having an open mind and think outside the box,” Varni said.
Adjusting to the needs and desires of the consumer has led to Varni Brothers’ longevity.
“The reason we’ve survived as an independent, family-owned franchise bottler of 7-Up and a co-packer for a whole lot of other products is that open-mindedness and versatility and willing to adapt and change.”
Varni points to the recent packaging additions the company launched with Noah’s water, the brand the firm began producing in 1992. A year ago Varni Brothers introduced Noah’s water in a unique 24-ounce resealable cap aluminum.
According to Varni, the 24-ounce option is the most eco-friendly water package in the industry because it can be refilled easily compared to smaller-mouthed plastic bottles. In addition, as an aluminum product it can be recycled for more money than plastic containers.
“We’re the only people in bottled water in this package,” Varni said.
The idea of offering the larger aluminum container for Noah’s evolved from Varni’s production of Rockstar and Cock ’n Bull ginger beer, which are also sold in 24-ounce packaging.
“Even before I got in my first load of empty (Cock ’n Bull) cans, that’s when it hit me. Why don’t I put Noah’s in this thing? It’s our own brand. It’s worth taking the chance,” he said. “Nobody else has done it yet and there are only three other bottlers in the country that can actually fill this container and none of them are doing water.”
Bringing an idea such as the new Noah water packaging to fruition thrills Varni.
“The changes, and the innovation and being in the middle of it — that’s what drives me because that’s the fun part. It really is,” Varni said. “Then it’s fun to see it out on the production line.”
Varni Brothers also has introduced unique packaging for other products such as 8.4-ounce Cock ’n Bull single servings targeted at bars. There is also Moscow Mules, a cocktail that features ginger beer, which is also growing in popularity.
For Varni, the idea is to embrace change. It’s a piece of advice he believes applies to any business person in any industry.
“The reason we’re still here today is because we’ve had the ability to take the blinders off and see what the trends will be,” he said. “If we’d had the mindset, like other colleagues in our industry, that 7-Up worked for us for 60 years and we’re not going to take on new products like Snapple or New York Seltzer or Clearly Canadian back then or later Red Bull, we’d be gone just like they’re all gone.”
Currently eight Varni family members representing the second, third and now fourth generations work for the firm. Varni says his two oldest children are unlikely to join the company, but perhaps there’s a chance with his youngest.
“My third one is a junior in high school. There’s a possibility. But you know, we will just have to wait and see,” he said.