In 1919, an eleven-year-old boy with a penchant for sales set up a makeshift soda stand in the front yard of his parents’ home. The fact the home was located across the street from the baseball field was good fortune, and the fact the kid was undercutting the field’s concession stand prices was good business. The town was Greenville; the boy was Herman Lay; and the sodas were Pepsi, a brand this young boy would encounter on a much grander scale in the future.
Herman Lay was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1909 to Jesse N. and Bertha Erman Parr Lay. His father sold farm machinery, and Lay often credited his father’s gentle style of selling for his own success. After relocating to Greenville, Lay opened up his soda stand, which was so successful he opened a bank account, bought a bicycle, and hired neighborhood kids to operate the stand. When the ballpark moved locations, Lay decided to tag along, becoming one of the park’s top concession salesmen. His interests not limited to sodas and peanuts, he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player.
While at Greenville High, Lay excelled at sports including baseball, basketball and track, earning him an athletic scholarship to Furman University. But the halls of academia couldn’t contain Lay’s entrepreneurial spirit, and after only two years of college, he dropped out to pursue his dreams.
By 1932, Lay had moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked as a distributor for the Barrett Potato Chip Company, which was headquartered in Atlanta. It was far from Lay’s dream job, as he felt there was no future in potato chips. But the Great Depression was in full swing and jobs were scarce, so Lay soldiered on. Lay’s territory included northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky, and much of it he traversed in a Model-T Ford full of potato chips, which he’d sell to roadside stands, grocery stores, and filling stations.
By 1936, Lay’s one-man distributorship had become a booming business with an expanded territory and 25 employees, and in 1938 he was offered the opportunity to purchase the Barrett Company’s Atlanta and Memphis plants. He raised the money through investors and a bank loan, and in 1939 moved to Atlanta to open the H.W. Lay Company.
Over the next 20 years the company expanded with new plants and distribution centers, becoming the largest snack food company in the country. In 1961, the Lay company merged with a Dallas-based snack food company famous for its fried corn snacks. Lay moved with his family to Dallas and became the CEO of Frito-Lay. Looking for opportunities to grow the company globally, Lay found a perfect partner in Pepsi-Cola, a company that in the mid-’60s employed more than 5,000, with operations in 100 countries.
Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola merged in 1965 to create PepsiCo, Inc., with Herman Lay appointed chairman of the board. Lay kept this title until 1971 when he became chairman of the executive committee. He held this post until his retirement from PepsiCo in 1980, 60 years after selling the same soda out of a little stand in his front yard in Greenville. Herman Lay died in 1982 and was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2002.