With Pleass Global Ltd’s VaiWai bottled water brand winning rave reviews for its taste, appearance and sustainable production, Managing Director Warwick Pleass explains that a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility due to open this year will provide the company with the springboard to ramp up its exports to the next level.
Pleass Global Ltd is investing in a new $10 million, sustainably designed warehouse and water bottling facility in Namosi, and the development is expected to be completed in early 2016. How do you assess the investment climate in Fiji at present for both local and international investors?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer on a macro scale but we’re certainly pleased that we invested in Fiji. We came 20 years ago and we have enjoyed our time here both personally and professionally.
From an investment perspective, there have been periods where growth was low and it was tough but we persevered. We didn’t want to leave and we’re very happy with the business climate now. The economy is obviously growing and our business is focused on exports so it’s not so dependent upon the local economy anyway. We’re pleased to be here.
We have seen capital expenditure, particularly on roads, increase significantly recently, whilst there has been a partial privatization of the ports and the airports are expected to follow. How has your business been impacted by the government’s focus on critical infrastructure?
There is no doubt that the roads have improved. They still have a long way to go but we certainly welcome the ongoing investment in the roads. However, it’s ultimately our own investments that really make the difference for us, not the government’s investments. We’re pleased with the investments we are making and we believe we are giving ourselves a good springboard for growth.
Australia is obviously the closest big export market to Fiji, but the US has emerged as the biggest export market for Fijian goods in recent years, mainly on the back of Fiji Water. How do you assess the potential for your company and for other manufacturers to penetrate the US market?
It’s a great feeling to sell one’s product in a big tier 1 country like the US, but there are bigger water markets than that both in volume and per capita. Our research has focused us on those markets, and so while the US is on our radar, we have lots of countries on our to-do list and the US is not near the top. We do have a small distributor in California that is doing his own brand of water that we contract pack for him. We’re talking to a number of other parties in the US about distribution.
A lot of people want to get their hands on our VaiWai Natural Artesian Water brand, because it’s the best looking bottle of water you can get and it has great environmental credentials. We’re hiding our cards at this stage and talking to a number of parties in a lot of different countries. When we open our new production facility this year we will have the capacity to offer pricing that is attractive enough to enable us to penetrate some of these markets, including the US. We are just waiting for the new factory to come online before we can really ramp up our marketing.
Looking more closely at the US market, California is home to many organic and health-food stores. Are you planning to launch VaiWai as a targeted niche product for health-conscious and eco-conscious consumers, or do you see it as a mainstream product?
Those kinds of stores you mention represent one market segment that would obviously be interested in seeing VaiWai on the shelf. When we developed the product it was more of a boutique niche product for exactly that market segment. But we didn’t expect the look of the product to appeal to so many mainstream users. It’s really been an eye opener for us to find that it has so much mainstream appeal, especially among women. It’s a really, really good-looking product!
We’re now having to re-think that strategy and we are talking with mainstream beverage distributors. But it’s still an ultra-premium product. It tastes better than other more famous brands, according to the local people here in Fiji, who drink them all. We think this is because of our pH levels – it has lower acidity (better alkalinity). It has a fantastic taste profile and it has the organic, environmental, and the sustainability credentials, plus it is a great looking product. So yes, we think it ticks all the boxes for mainstream appeal.
Sustainability is clearly a very important component of your business model. How is this reflected in your new production facility that will open soon?
The measure of a sustainable building in the US is LEED certification and to my knowledge there’s only one building in Fiji certified by LEED and that’s the US Embassy. We hope to become the second. We have put a lot of work into the design and engineering of the building to make it sustainable. We are using local materials and we will use the prevailing winds in local climatic conditions to minimize electricity. We will also be reclaiming energy from the production machinery.
We think it’s going to be a great model and we’re really looking forward to getting it finished and getting the certifiers in to tell us how we did. There are other international certifications we could measure our building against, but it’s LEED we really want because most of our target countries would like to see a US certification rather than an Australian one or a European one.
I read that you forego automation as much as possible to ensure that you sustain the livelihoods of the people you have working here. Why did you decide to go down this route and do you think you can sustain this model as you increase production and exports?
There are certain things for which we need to automate from a quality perspective. However, our management team is very focused on finding the right balance and doing as much as possible by hand to keep our people employed. Fiji’s labor rates are relatively low so that’s not a difficult decision to make.
Ultimately our decisions have to be based on quality but we do like to say that our product is made by hand, which is a really nice thing say in this day and age of robots doing everything.
Besides bottled water, you also produce packaging, disposable tableware and mosquito control solutions. How do you see your product portfolio evolving and which products will primarily power the international growth of your business?
The future of the business is in water bottling. We do a number of products. VaiWai is obviously the major global brand. We have a more regional brand called AquaSafe Natural Artesian Water. It’s a very strong seller in Fiji and the South Pacific. We do a number of private labels for clients, including in California. Locally we do private labels for banks, shipping companies and sports development; you name it we have brands for them all.
Water is the future of the business but we want to keep the land as sustainable as possible. We have another business unit called Kila Eco Adventure Park and Kila Organics. We have a small model sustainable farm growing spices and we intend to expand that as an outreach business into the community. This will support communities with organic fertilizers and seedlings so they can grow their own crops and sell them back to us so that we can package them and brand them under our Kila Organics name.
The Kila Eco Adventure Park is an eco-adventure attraction, but we intend to expand that into a more of an overall wildlife experience where locals and tourists can enjoy animals. We are even dreaming as big as a zoo because Fiji doesn’t have one and kids really love animals. I really feel sorry for all the kids at present because there is just nowhere to see and experience animals.
We will also build an Eco Visitor Center. We plan to have displays for visitors to enjoy and learn about the environment and the ecology of Fiji. It will feature a geo-thermal air conditioning system (low-cost air conditioning using the cooling mass of the Earth). The eco-visitor center, interpretive displays and attractions will create a hub of excellence for the environment in Fiji.
Your LinkedIn profile summary is very short: “Build wealth and strategically use it to help the less fortunate.” Can I finish by asking you expand on this motto and your personal motivations for success?
Even at an early age it struck me that life was short and if you’re blessed enough to make some money and have a successful business, then it’s better to use that for good. We have a strong ethos running through the business about helping the needy. My wife Cate and I have been active in Rotary International programs for years because that’s a good vehicle to help the less fortunate. I have also been very active in leading water and sanitation (WASH) projects in Fiji through a local foundation.
As I said, life is too short so there’s no harm in using your money for positive purposes whilst you can.