Md. bottled water flows abroad

January 19, 1995|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County water is going to Mexico and South Korea.

Clarksville's Brick House Farm Spring Water Co. has landed its first foreign deals -- potentially worth millions -- to sell its bottled water in the two countries.

The deals represent a breakthrough for the 5-year-old company's product: bottled spring water pumped from a huge aquifer under a Clarksville farm and sold under two labels, Taro and Brick House.

"This could be our biggest break," Thomas Taro, the company's founder, said yesterday. "It's great."

Mr. Taro and his sales manager, Mark Bersbach, estimate that their deal with a food importer to enter the Mexican market could generate as much as $10 million a year in sales.

Brick House Farm already has sent the first shipment of Taro Spring Water bound for Mexican stores. The shipment totaled six tractor-trailer loads, about 215,000 bottles.

As for South Korea, Mr. Taro expects the company to break into that market in May. Initially, South Korea should provide $5 million to $8 million in annual business for the company, he said.

Brick House is one of just a handful of bottled water companies in Maryland, and one of the few that draws its water from a Maryland source.

Mr. Taro said that passage by Congress last year of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) helped speed the deal to get his product on market shelves south of the border.

Despite recent problems with its currency and stocks, Mexico still is considered by many business analysts as a very attractive market for American products during the next decade. And NAFTA's passage has improved the bottom lines of many Maryland companies.

In the first nine months of 1994, exports from the state to Mexico soared by 28 percent to a record $71.4 million as NAFTA took effect, according to data tracked by the International Division of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.

As a result of its agreement with a Mexico City importer-distributor, the company's spring water will be sold in about 36,000 independent convenience-type stores in Mexico, as well as hotels and resort accommodations, Mr. Taro said. The U.S.-based discounter, Price Club, which is expanding heavily into some areas of Mexico, also will stock the product, he said.

But in the long term, Mr. Taro said, South Korea could prove to "a much bigger market for us than Mexico."

Shipments to South Korea are planned to begin in May, when that country's government will begin allowing imported bottled water to be sold openly.

For its first shipment, the company plans to send by tanker about 500,000 bottles of spring water. The water will be loaded in the Port of Baltimore.

"South Korea is a very exciting opportunity," Mr. Bersbach said. "The market for imported bottled water will just be opening and it's near the heart of the entire Pacific Rim market, which could hold huge potential for us."

The company has received advice about exploring foreign markets for its product from the International Trade Assistance Center at Howard Community College, Mr. Taro said.

Once the shipments to Mexico and South Korea are running smoothly, Mr. Taro said, Brick House plans to target more of Latin America and the Caribbean.

"The [drinking] water down there is bad," he said, "So Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean should be good markets for us."

Despite earning top awards in several bottled water taste contests during the past several years, Brick House has found it tough to snare a significant share of the $3.5 billion-a-year bottled water business in the U.S. Even locally, it's been an uphill climb.

Mr. Taro said the company had sales of about $350,000 in 1994.

"It should have been $3 million," he said. But getting the product widely distributed in the region has been problematic, he said, and that stymied expected growth for the company.

Mr. Taro said he knew nothing about the bottled water business when he purchased his Clarksville property in 1979 as an investment.

He also did not know just how fiercely competitive and regulated the bottled water industry would become with its expansion in the U.S. in the mid- and late 1980s.

Nevertheless, he forged ahead with tapping the water under his farm -- which comes from the Cockeysville Marble Aquifer-- and launched his company, named after an historic 18th-century mansion on the land.

The only differences between his company's two brands of bottled water is their packaging and cost.

Water sold under the Taro label is bottled in clear plastic bottles that have a square-edged shape. The Brick House water comes in milky-white plastic bottles, similar to those used for milk. Because of its distinctive packaging, the Taro label carries a higher price.

In the Mexican market, the company's water will come in milk-white plastic bottles but carry the Taro label, Mr. Bersbach said. Mr. Taro said the Mexican distributor said he would only sell water bottled under that name.

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