Bayou Icons: Brenda And Charles Marsala
Bayou Icons Brenda And Charles Marsala Reflect On Love And The Road To Success
article by Kay Stothart Rector | photography by Martin G Meyers
It has been more than four decades since Charles Marsala began working at the Budweiser beer distributorship in downtown Monroe, sweeping warehouse floors, loading trucks and doing odd jobs to earn a meager paycheck. Marsala’s life has changed dramatically since those days, but in many ways it has remained unaltered. He is still married to Brenda, his bride of fifty years, who encouraged him to leave his job at Snyder’s clothing store in 1971 and give the beer business a try. He is still living in his hometown of Monroe, going to work each day in the same business, where he first asked for a job so many years ago. He and his family now enjoy a comfortable lifestyle that neither he nor Brenda knew growing up and could not conceive of having in the early days of their marriage. “We were both working, and we had enough money to pay our bills, but not a lot left over,” Brenda remembers. “We would sell our coke bottles at the end of the week, so that we could go to a movie on Friday night. But we were happy.”
Brenda and Charles both grew up in Monroe. After graduation from St. Matthew High School, Charles attended what was then Northeast Louisiana University before being drafted for service in the U.S. Army in October of 1966. Although he had known her for years, he had just begun dating Brenda when he left Monroe for Basic Training at Fort Polk. While at Fort Polk, he proposed to Brenda over the phone, telling her that he wanted to get married as soon as he could come home. Brenda was working at South Central Bell at the time, and was in the telephone company locker room when she received his call.
What his proposal lacked in romance, it made up for in sincerity. Before they could get married, the Army sent Charles to Fort Ord, California, on the Pacific coast near the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Brenda traveled to California to visit him, and they were finally married in Monterey County. Brenda describes being married by a judge, with a meter maid as their only witness. “The judge asked us where our witness was, and we didn’t have one,” she laughs. “So he went down and got the meter maid to come and be our witness.” “We got married on George Washington’s birthday,” Charles adds, “because that was my only day off from the military.” The Monterey County area is still a sentimental place for the Marsalas. They return to the Pacific coast to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea often. “It was years before we could afford to go back there,” Brenda says. “Now we go back there almost every year for our anniversary. It’s a beautiful place.”
From Fort Ord, Charles was sent overseas to Vietnam, where he spent twelve months during the Vietnam War. Being apart as newlyweds was difficult, especially since communication was virtually impossible except through letters, which were sometimes slow to arrive. “I knew other girls whose husbands were over there, and their husbands were able to get phone calls through to them sometimes,” Brenda recalls. “Charles would write me and say to be by the phone on a certain day, because he was going to try to get a call through. So I would sit and look at the phone and wait for him to call. But he never was able to get calls through.” They were able to meet once during his year-long tour of duty, for a week in Hawaii during his “R and R” time. They wrote letters to each other every day. Brenda recalls that during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the war, she did not hear from Charles for weeks, because no mail was getting out. “We were very fortunate that he made it home safe,” she says.
After Charles’ stint in the Army was over and he returned home, the couple had their marriage blessed in a Catholic ceremony in Monroe. It was not long after he came home and they were settling in to married life that Charles interviewed for that first job with Budco Distributing, the local wholesale distributor for Budweiser and other Anheuser-Busch products. At Brenda’s urging, he met with the General Manager of Budco, whose cousin, Peggy Perryman, was Charles’ co-worker at Snyder’s. “They really didn’t even have a position open, but he hired me as a favor to Ms. Perryman,” Charles says. “I will never forget, he asked me: ‘What would you like to accomplish in coming to work here?’ I said ‘I would really like to be sitting in the desk you’re sitting in someday.’”
General Manager Reid Heflin, whom Marsala would one day replace, hired him to work in the Budco warehouse. While Brenda worked at South Central Bell, Charles went from loading trucks in the warehouse to driving a truck on a distribution route. He drove a route for six or seven years before eventually moving into a sales manager position. “My goal was always to become the general manager,” says Charles. Budco was owned by Shreveport businessman Les Cruvant, who also had distributorships in Natchitoches, Shreveport and Ferriday. Cruvant did not have any children to take over his businesses, so Charles imagined that there might be an opportunity for ownership in the future. “I kind of focused my sights on that, thinking that one day I might have a shot at it, never dreaming that I really would,” he says.
Shortly before Cruvant decided to retire, Anheuser-Busch implemented an investment program that helped those with corporate approval and experience as a General Manager of an AB distributorship to buy into the distributorship and become an owner. Through this program, in 1992, Marsala was able to purchase a 15% ownership in the business in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, which owned 85%. In 2000, the Marsalas purchased the remaining 85% ownership interest from Anheuser-Busch and changed the name of their business to Marsala Beverage.
Marsala Beverage currently employs almost 100 individuals in its two distribution centers in Monroe and Ferriday, Louisiana. The company distributes beer and other beverages in 15 North Louisiana parishes, delivering over 2.8 million cases of product annually to more than 750 licensed retail accounts.
From its inception, Marsala Beverage has been a family business. Charles and Brenda’s two children, Damon Marsala and Mandy Marsala Pruitt, are equal stakeholders in the company with their parents and both have had active roles in the business. Damon started working at the distributorship when he was fifteen years old, mowing grass and helping in the warehouse. He now serves as the President and General Manager, replacing Charles in that position. Charles is the CEO of Marsala Beverage and continues to have a hand in all aspects of the business operations, but to a much lesser degree now that his son is in charge.
“It’s a great business to be in. It’s always been a fun business. We’ve worked hard, and we’ve played hard,” says Charles. He is thankful for the people he has worked with over the years. “We are fortunate that we’ve been able to hire some good people that do a great job for us,” he says. “We like to think that we are a great company to work for and try hard to take care of our employees.”
When asked if he will ever retire completely, Charles says no. He does admit that he is slowing down a bit, though, enjoying life with Brenda and their children and grandchild. They travel often, sometimes with other couples and sometimes just the two of them. “We enjoy each other’s company. We really are best friends,” Charles says.
When reflecting on his business success, Charles is quick to give credit to his wife. “Brenda has always encouraged me in everything I’ve ever done,” he says. “She’s always been with me, one hundred percent.” Brenda responds by demurring, saying “It’s easy to sit back and encourage. He did the hard work.” She recalls that when Charles first started at Budco, he would come home exhausted. At least once, when he was working as a helper on the truck in the heat of the summer, he wanted to quit, but each time, after talking it over, he would decide to stay just two more weeks. “As of September,” Charles says, “I have been there forty-four years.” They laugh when they look back now, but admit that it has not always been an easy road.
A devout Catholic, Brenda attends Mass every day and enjoys visiting different churches when she travels. Charles jokes that he and his wife are the only people who actually attend Mass when they go to Las Vegas. “But that is Brenda,” he says. She is devoted to her faith, which she credits for getting her through any difficulties that life has brought her way.
The Marsalas are grateful for the opportunities that they have had and for all that they have been able to achieve. “This business has been very, very good to us,” Charles recognizes. “We need to always remember that and give back to the community that has given so much to us.” They feel that donating to and participating in charitable events is extremely important. Marsala’s history of sponsoring and supporting community events is something else that Charles attributes to Brenda’s influence. She encouraged him when they became owners to donate generously to worthy causes, and Marsala Beverage continues to do that. Through direct donations of products and monetary contributions and through indirect donations of employee time and company resources, Marsala Beverage has been responsible for helping raise millions of dollars over the years for charitable organizations that improve lives in Northeast Louisiana. Charles and Brenda and their children also give of their time, serving on non-profit boards and opening their home to host fundraising events. “You get a good feeling when you know that the proceeds from something that you have done will help people,” Charles says. “We’ve also made great friends and gotten to know some wonderful people by participating in charitable functions.”
“Brenda and I say that ours is a Cinderella story, in terms of where we started and what we were able to accomplish,” says Charles. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds. Brenda’s mother was a widow with five children, and Charles was raised in a middle-class working family. “We didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t know that we didn’t have a lot,” he says.
Charles attributes their financial success to the grace of God. He and Brenda acknowledge their blessings and good fortune and appreciate what they have been able to do through hard work and determination. As they celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, they are grateful for each other and the family they created. As they pass on the business to their children, they remind them to work hard, pay attention to detail, treat others well and give back to the community that has given them so much. They savor their memories and look forward to more good times ahead.