Liquid asset unearthed

December 14, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

CLARKSVILLE -- The last thing Thomas Pignataro expected to find beneath the green turf and thoroughbred paddocks known as Brick House Farm was an ocean.

"That's what I got, a damn ocean. I thought to myself, . . . I'm doomed. This place is worthless.' "

Worthless? Hardly.

Mr. Pignataro, who purchased the property in 1979, had wanted to build and sell estate homes on the land, located off Sheppard Lane in Howard County. Today, he's ditched his home-building business and is tapping that "ocean" -- actually an enormous aquifer known as the Cockeysville Marble Aquifer.

Along with three business partners, he launched the Brick House Farm Spring Water Co. in 1990. Now they are aiming to turn the aquifer and the spring water bubbling from it into a fortune.

The company projects $6 million in revenue by 1995. That would make it one of the best-selling spring waters drawn from a Maryland aquifer or well.

Deer Park, based in Western Maryland, is considered the largest Maryland-based company bottling water from a ground source in the state. The company, which was recently bought by Perrier Group of America, had sales revenue in 1992 of $60 million, said Jane Lazgin, a spokeswoman for Perrier.

Brick House Farm's operation -- it has just 10 full-time employees -- is like the majority of the nation's bottled water companies, says Lisa Prats, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association. About 80 percent of the nation's bottled water companies have sales averaging $3 million annually, she says, and "are mom-and-pop operations."

Mr. Pignataro's feelings about his land's potential changed when he visited his father in Florida in 1988. On a trip to a grocery store, the two stood and watched folks checking out at the register. A trend emerged: People were stocking up in bulk on bottled water.

"They were buying more water than milk. I went home and started making phone calls," Mr. Pignataro recalls.

Business of water

Today, after a $3.5 million investment, mostly in machinery purchases, Brick House Spring Water is ready to compete in the $3.5 billion-a-year bottled water business.

The competition: 700 other domestic brands and about 75 imports.

Brick House Farm won't bully industry blockbusters like France's Evian and California's Crystal Geyser. But Mr. Pignataro is confident that the spring water from his property is so clean and sweet-tasting that he need only convince people to taste it for sales to start jumping. He likes to trumpet the fact that his water took third place in the "Toast to the Tap" water-tasting contest in 1992, conducted in the resort town of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"It's a very high-quality water," says Eugene Lee, vice president for fluid sales at Embassy Dairy, a drink supplier to 4,000 restaurants and convenience stores in the Baltimore, Washington and northern Virginia area.

Embassy recently began offering Brick House Farm's premium line, Taro -- coined from the last four letters of Mr. Pignataro's name -- in its inventory. Mr. Lee said that Embassy decided to drop a nationally known domestically bottled spring water in favor of picking up Taro. He estimates that 25 percent of Embassy's customers -- about 1,000 customers -- will end up stocking Taro.

Mark Bersbach, sales manager at Brick House Farm, is hopeful that the Embassy deal will help the company build strong name recognition in the region.

"That's our home turf. We have to be No. 1 at home before we can try to capitalize on other markets," he says.

The company was one of several bottled water companies in Maryland which worked to meet the surge in demand caused by the possible contamination of Washington area tap water last week. Mr. Pignataro hopes the exposure his bottled water got in Washington schools and hospitals, which he supplied with emergency shipments, helps build the company's name recognition in the home market.

Meanwhile, Embassy's Mr. Lee believes Taro's big advantage in the market will be its modest price and its packaging. Mr. Pignataro decided to bottle the Taro line in see-through, box-shaped bottles.

"In the bottled water business, uniqueness is everything; packaging sells water. Their packaging is a definite asset. It conveys a perception of high quality," Mr. Lee said.

Starting up

Mr. Pignataro knew nothing about bottling water when he purchased the property in 1979, nor just how fiercely competitive and regulated the bottled water industry was to become in the United States. The industry exploded in the mid- and late 1980s.

But with characteristic energy, he plowed ahead with tapping the springs and launched the company, which is named after an historic 18th-century mansion on the land.

When Mr. Pignataro returned from his Florida trip, he began calling established bottled water companies seeking guidance on how to start his own operation.

"Most of the people hung up on me soon as I told them what I wanted to do. It was unbelievable," he says.

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