Roxboro business giant passes away

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Brantley Burnett was a creation of his time.

The longtime Roxboro businessman died Aug. 1 at the age of 90. Born just as the Great Depression began, Burnett began working as a child in the family business – a Pepsi-Cola bottling company started in 1905 by his grandfather.

Among his first jobs was hammering out metal crowns – the caps on bottles – so they could be reused. The company needed that done because there was a steel shortage during World War II.

He would continue to work in the family business for most of the rest of his life. He was president of Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Roxboro when he died and still came into the office daily to conduct business.

Tom Burnett remembers his father as a stern businessman, but one who had a tender spot for his family and his employees.

“He went to a meeting one time and someone was selling peaches. He bought a case and liked them so much he started buying more. After a few years he was buying as many as 70 cases and giving them out to employees and friends, just anyone he really liked,” Tom Burnett said.

Brantley Burnett’s family was an active group within their industry. Tom Burnett recalled stories he had heard of his grandfather traveling to Washington D.C. to testify on behalf of the Pepsi-Cola company when it was going through bankruptcy proceedings. That testimony helped the fledgling soft drink company stay afloat and grow into the corporate giant that it is today.

As a reward, the Burnett family’s distribution territory grew immensely.

When Brantley Burnett – who was known to many as Mr. B. – came of age, the family divided the company into units and Brantley Burnett moved to Roxboro to begin operations here in 1962.

Like his forebears, Brantley Burnett was active within the industry as well. As the soft drink industry began to diversify from bottles to cans, Burnett led a group of bottlers from North and South Carolina to build a single facility, owned by all the bottling companies, to produce the canned product. He served as president of the Carolina Canners for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the Soft Drink Hall of Fame in 2006 and, in 2011, he received the Pepsi-Cola Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jeff Fitzgerald said his father-in-law was active in more than just the bottling industry. Burnett was the driving force behind the establishment of the Person County Airport. As a member of the Industrial Bonding Authority – the precursor to today’s Economic Development Commission – Burnett saw the value of an airport for business growth and development in Person County. “He fought for that thing for a long time. It became political and he didn’t have the support he needed for it, so he kept trying and I guess the political winds changed,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that was the thing he was probably most proud of.”

Today, the airport is just what Burnett thought it would be, Funded largely through federal and state dollars, Burnett’s vision of a local airport now serves as a home to corporate planes for a number of local companies.

He served as the first two-term president of the Roxboro Area Chamber of Commerce in 1966 and 1967. He was a member of the Roxboro Rotary Club until his death and served as the president of that organization as well. He was named a Paul Harris Fellow in 1982.

Brantley Burnett’s grandson, Grey Burnett, said his grandfather leaves a lasting legacy. He recalls a time when one of Brantley’s grandchildren expressed a concern about their children falling down the steps in their home. “Mr. B just showed up with the stuff and built this thing to keep the children from falling down the steps. Grey Burnett’s remembrance brought a reminder from his father that Mr. B. had once built the same homemade version of a baby gate for his own grandchildren too.

“I think people felt lucky to count themselves one of his friends. A lot of people thought he was driven by work and he was, but it wasn’t about Pepsi. It was about doing for the Roxboro community and the people who lived here,” Grey Burnett said.

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