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Jerry Cheatham was driving with his buddies from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The highway took them through Hartsville, South Carolina, where they stopped to get gas. Cheatham remembered people from his college days who lived there. “This place is in the middle of nowhere,” he remembers thinking. “Why would anybody live here?”
A year later, he would be one of those people. Cheatham accepted a position with the Hartsville-based Sonoco, the multibillion consumer, industrial, healthcare, and protective packaging company. Sunoco, the gas company, he had heard of; Sonoco, the global packaging company, he had not. Last July, he celebrated his thirty-third year with the company.
But the story gets better. “From the very place at the gas station where I uttered those words,” he says with a laugh, “my wife-to-be lived right across the street. I got a great job, a great career, and a great wife.”
Cheatham is Sonoco’s staff vice president of finance for industrial North America. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, upstate in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with three brothers and two sisters. “We were very much a working-class family,” he says. “Money was never in abundance, but both of my parents were loving and supporting.”
They were also inspiring role models who instilled in their children an indelible work ethic and respect for education. Neither of his parents finished high school, and Cheatham became the first in his family to attend college (first at South Carolina State University, and later, at Vanderbilt, where he earned his MBA).
The Cheatham children were never told to get a job, he said, “but we always knew we needed one. My first was as a paperboy when I was between 10 and 11. I hit the federal payroll in 1977 working in restaurants and have been gainfully employed ever since.”
Cheatham’s path to Sonoco was guided in part by four mentors. One was a high school accounting teacher. The second was a former pro football player and educator who worked in a local recreation department.
“I spent a lot of time in that rec center,” Cheatham says. “I didn’t know anyone directly who had been to college. He was the individual who really planted that seed, along with my grandfather. He was a contractor. I worked one summer for him laying bricks, and in the hot sun of South Carolina I learned pretty quick that I wasn’t going to survive in that kind of work, so I’d better hit the books a little harder than I had been.”
And then there was Frank Jonas of Arthur Andersen & Company, the public accounting firm, which recruited on the South Carolina State University campus. During the interview, Jonas asked Cheatham if he could live in Charlotte. “For the right money, I could live in Montana,” Cheatham replied.
“He gave me my first professional job,” Cheatham recalls. “I’m grateful he took a chance on me.”
After four years, Cheatham pursed an opportunity to join Sonoco. He would evolve his role from finance to a process improvement role. He was later asked to lead the effort to consolidate Sonoco’s accounting functions. In essence, he considers his job to provide leadership, to use financial information to drive business performance, and to uphold Sonoco’s core values of integrity, respect, service, and accountability.
Cheatham attended Vanderbilt University from 1997 to 1999 while he was working for Sonoco in Nashville. “I had a goal of obtaining an MBA from a top-tier business school as a means of equipping me with skills that would help advance my career,” he said. “I accomplished that goal by attending Vanderbilt’s Executive MBA program while working full time.”
Cheatham is currently the staff VP of finance for Sonoco’s Industrial North American businesses that is comprised of five operating units. Among his current initiatives include optimizing Sonoco’s Shared Service Center in North America, expanding the footprint of its pricing analytics and optimization software application and serving as co-executive sponsor for the Work Environment team that is a part of Sonoco’s Diversity & Inclusion Council.
As to his own leadership style, he considers a statue outside of Sonoco’s corporate office that says, “People build businesses.” He expresses pride in every member of his team. “They make me look better,” he says. “What I value the most in others is humility and believing in something bigger than themselves. Someone who is driven and who has an insatiable curiosity.”
Cheatham and his wife, Carla, are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary this year. They have three daughters. One is a nurse. Another is a financial analyst. “She once told me that spending the day with me at work was the single most boring day ever,” he says, laughing. “But she had a change of heart after one semester of chemical engineering at Clemson.” The third daughter is an early education major at the University of South Carolina and dreams of opening her own dance studio.
Education is a key component of his charitable efforts as well. Cheatham has been a member of the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU), an advocacy organization representing twenty-one of South Carolina’s nonprofit colleges and universities, since 2014. He is the current chair on the Board of Trustees. He is also president of the Darlington County Education Foundation (DCEF), which raises funds and awards grants for teachers to enhance the educational experience for public school students across Darlington County. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for Coker University.
“I’m always looking for ways to make a difference,” he says. “I know what a life-changer education can be.”
“We believe that successful pricing needs visionaries. Jerry Cheatham had the vision to improve profitability by optimizing pricing at Sonoco. He needed to partner with a team he could trust. With the guidance of Pricefx, Big Data Pricing, and internal alignment at Sonoco, we were able to show an ROI within 6 months and have now expanded to multiple business units.”
—Vicki Roberts, Senior Account Executive