Former soft-drink company CEO Dale F. Halton continues to leave her mark on Charlotte, this time as co-founder of a school for children with autism.
by Vanessa Infanzon
When Dale Halton stepped in as president of Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Charlotte in 1981, she was a rare female CEO. The business was close to insolvency, and Pepsico’s leaders were threatening to pull the franchise from her family, which had been affiliated with the soft-drink company for more than 70 years.
Within several years, the franchise was ahead of its larger Coca-Cola rival in soft-drink market share in the Charlotte region, she says.
Saving the company from ruin was personal for Halton, whose grandparents, Henry and Sadie Fowler, opened the business in Charlotte in 1905, 12 years after New Bern pharmacist Caleb Bradham created “Brad’s Drink.” (It was renamed Pepsi in 1898.)
In 2005, after serving more than two decades as president, Halton sold the company. It was then Charlotte’s biggest female-owned company, the Charlotte Business Journal reported.
As a fierce supporter of the underdog, Halton, a Myers Park High School graduate, has wielded her influence to provide opportunities for athletes, dancers and students —– young people who may not have the means to obtain access to what they need.
Her philanthropy has extended to numerous nonprofits, such as Charlotte Ballet, Central Piedmont Community College and UNC Charlotte. She’s served on countless boards, including Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Historic Rosedale. In 2020, she was inducted into the inaugural class of UNC Charlotte Athletics Hall of Fame.
Her latest passion is Aspire Carolinas Foundation, where she teamed with veteran Charlotte nonprofit executive Jennifer Nichols to create a school for 3rd through 8th graders with learning disabilities related to autism spectrum disorder. The Halton School opened in 2019 in Huntersville. With additional fundraising, Halton envisions the program starting a charter school focusing on vocational training for trades such as plumbing and culinary arts.
Halton has an extensive collection of Native American and western American art from her days living in Telluride, Colo. While she grew up in a privileged family, Halton says country clubs aren’t her style: She prefers hosting a group of longtime friends for lunch in her Myers Park home, which boasts a sweeping view of the city’s tree canopy. And in case you were wondering, she still enjoys Pepsi products.
Comments are edited for length and clarity.
I’d been doing the advertising before taking over as president. I can be a very good organizer if I want. I had a lot of experience working with numerous groups. I think that must have helped. But we already had the people in place, they just weren’t allowed to do their job.
I couldn’t have done it without [General Manager] Darrell Holland. I’d known him since 1970. He was our adult Sunday school teacher and the last one to stop wearing white gloves to church on Sunday. We knew and respected each other.
We had such a great team. In fact, after I sold (Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co.), we met the first Friday of every month at Pike’s Drugs. We had to stop during the pandemic, but we’ve started again. We go to Rooster’s in SouthPark.
‘It’s time for you to go out and be the face of this business,’ [Darrell said]. I didn’t want to be the face of the business. If you want a woman, pick somebody else. He said, ‘No, it’s the right time.’
I got to meet a lot of people I would have never met. I got to understand politics a lot better. When I first got involved, they gave me the campaign donation checks to the women in our state legislature. At that time, Mecklenburg wasn’t making much noise in Raleigh.
Pepsi sent two of its lawyers down and met with my lawyer and myself. They threatened to take the franchise away because I was female. I said, ‘Come on down to my courts and we’ll work it out.’ They never did. A few years later, we were one of the top performing bottlers.
We were a far second to Coke in the market [in 1981]. Maybe four years later, we had a better market share than Coke. Pepsi had a regional office in town, and we had to go down to see the latest dog and pony show. They said, ‘We’ve got the numbers. You surpassed Coke.’ I almost cry now when I talk about it. I had to leave the room. It meant so much to me to do this. It was a really beautiful moment in my life.
When we moved back to Charlotte, my grandfather had his arm twisted by Bonnie Cone (who is considered a key founder of UNC Charlotte). He and my grandmother were the first Pepsi bottlers — ever. He was giving money every year. When he died, I couldn’t see all these flowers coming from all over the country because of his position in the company. I suggested no flowers but [instead] donations to UNC Charlotte, to the business college.
We started going to UNC Charlotte games. I wasn’t into basketball, but I felt like UNC Charlotte was the poor little downtrodden school in the system. I didn’t like that. I have an affinity for the underdog. I sort of fell in love with the school.
About four and a half years ago, some of us got together and decided that public schools aren’t taking care of the learning-disabled children. We decided to start a school for children with Asperger’s.
In the meantime, businesses were complaining they couldn’t get people to work. They’d hire someone and train them, and then they’d leave. Someone said, ‘Why don’t you do a trade high school?’ That’s what we’re doing now.
Up until last fall, there wasn’t that much money assigned to these [educational] grants. I started playing the political game, getting involved again. Last fall, lots of money was put toward education, including grants our children can get. Our school costs almost $24,000 a year.
I have known Jennifer Nichols since she was at the Red Cross, Discovery Place and then Dore Academy. I’d already been a little involved with the Dore Academy. When they moved, I got more involved.
Those little kids just stole my heart. We decided we needed something that went deeper. If you went to the school, you’d feel the warmth, the caring and the love. [Many of] these students have never had friends. These kids are having playdates and overnights. We teach them social lessons. We give them the ability to learn the best way they can. SP
UPDATE: Halton passed away on March 21, 2023 at her home in Myers Park. UNCC Athletic Director Judy Rose shared this reflection via the University online: “Dale has always embraced and supported underdogs,” said Rose. “She saw potential in organizations and the people leading them. She adopted our University and was ‘all in.’ What started as a professional relationship developed into a personal friendship; her legacy will last forever.”
photographs courtesy Dale Halton personal papers and business records, MS0567, J. Murrey Atkins Library, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte