Nash continues to sparkle

 

Before boarding a flight in Shannon to attend a christening, Richard Nash squeezes in an interview on that most perplexing of Irish success stories: the bottling of water to sell to a rain-jaded public in exchange for sizeable amounts of cash.

In one form or another, he has had associations with big drinks companies such as Pepsi Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Heineken, and even had a fling with the most famous of Irish waters, Ballygowan, which is now a neighbour in Newcastle West.

Nash's has remained as a big fish in the small Irish pond, content to continue with the old red lemonade reliable, target the restaurant niche for its mineral water and develop new soft drinks with exotic fruit flavours. Orange and passion fruit is the best seller of the new high-juice content produces but red lemonade, "to which there is no equal", he declares, now sells well in Britain as a nostalgia product.

The company, of which he is chief executive, produces 750,000 cases across all brands annually but Nash's has re-positioned itself firmly as a mineral water company since 1984, despite its long association with soft drinks. "In Ireland, most of our sales on a volume basis are in bottled water and we see ourselves as being primarily a mineral water company - but mineral water with accents and attributes.

"Our target market would be affluent, educated, young adults, who like to discover for themselves rather than feel things are being pushed on them."

He is firmly a Newcastle West man, saying that while "technically born in Dublin", the family has been in the west Limerick town "for generations and generations". The family, in fact, moved from a farm outside the town into its square in 1832, establishing what a Limerick Leader advertisement described as a hotel. It was more of a pub and shop, he says, and in 1875 his great grandmother began learning how to carbonate water.

"There was a spring there. In the pub business in those days, you packaged beer or whiskey in some form or other, so it was a short step to bottling soft drinks."

In case people with shorter memories believe that mineral water was a 1980s phenomenon, he says that, for more than a century, spring waters were "the fashion in Europe".

"The technology was available to do this in Ireland. That is how the business began," he says.

It developed into soft drinks and he says that when Ballygowan started in 1983, "we just came full circle". Contrary to popular belief, bottling water was on everybody's lips in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He remembers being told Irish water was the most sought after export in the Middle East at the time, although early attempts by other companies mistakenly focused on still water. "The market started almost as a fashion or a social drink, not as an alternative to tap water.

"Perrier developed the market in sparkling water. We launched sparkling water directly to attack Perrier.

"A key element of the entrepreneurial success was that we were lucky to be first. We were lucky somebody serious did not attempt it before. People outside the industry really had no chance of breaking in. They did not have the technology or the distribution systems and, by and large, they did not know what to do."

But he says Ballygowan suffered from the Perrier setback in the early 1990s, when the French brand lost market share due to a contamination scare. "We were nicely positioned to knock them out of the British market. Suddenly our market disappeared. The scare took away the whole emphasis on brands and just made it an issue of availability. Ballygowan just became one of 50 choices."

The Ballygowan partnership also included co-founder Geoff Read and Anheuser-Busch for a time. But there was squabbling, he says, when the US brewery giant was on board and, after they left, there was not enough confidence among the shareholders to make a long-term commitment. The water brand was sold to the C&C Group.

"It was obvious that there was a lot of value attached to Ballygowan. A major company could exact synergies from the turnover and convert the business into one that was very profitable.

"At the time, we sold the source to Ballygowan and we retained maybe half the source area. Thus, we had an opportunity to re-enter the water market when the various covenants had expired."

Since then, luck has favoured the bottlers in the Irish market, with the loss of faith in the quality of tap water and an unwillingness to tolerate alterations in its taste due to treatment. Mr Nash fought back into the market with his own brand of mineral water and a distinctive blue bottle. "We did not want to be a `me too' for Ballygowan. We felt that market was already saturated with Ballygowan lookalikes."

A lightly sparkling brand and a still water variant have been aimed at the restaurant business. "I think, in general, people eat too much and drink too much. People are dehydrated and over fed. As they become more health conscious, they realise the need for rehydration. The half litre bottle of water is ideal, it is a simple thirst quencher."

The young Richard Nash boarded at Castleknock College in Dublin and went to university in the US, studying marketing and philosophy at Fordham University. "It was unusual in those days. There were two reasons. I was raised with the idea that I would join the family business. It was seen as an opportunity to see some of the world before settling down in Newcastle West.

"And Irish universities did not offer business and liberal arts as a degree course. You either had to choose commerce or arts and I was keen to do both."

He also gained some experience with international drinks companies, working for Pepsi Cola in Canada in the mid-1960s after completing his studies.

With all of his three children living in New York, Mr Nash may have some fears about continuing the family business. He says none of them has "an inclination to take up the cause".

The core company now has a turnover of more than £4 million (€5.1 million) but Nash Beverages, a distribution company operated in partnership with Heineken Murphy for the past four years, has an £18 million turnover. "It is one of my pleasures that I brought the world's two biggest breweries to the company, Anheuser-Busch and Heineken."

This alliance-forming strategy is how he has kept going as a small player, a role he is happy to continue. "We have to recognise our limitations. We position our soft drink and mineral water activities more in the entrepreneurial end of the market and avoid competing head on with the Coca-Colas and 7Ups of this world. We look to market segments that are not of interest to the multinational companies."