Exporting helps more than bottom line

Written by Susanne Baillie

Success in export markets can do so much more than boost your bottom line. Case in point: water-bottling firm Iroquois Water Ltd., which is parlaying profits from its export sales into real social and environmental change for the troubled native community it calls home.

Founded in 1999, Iroquois is located on Cornwall Island, Ont., in the Akwesasne native reserve. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe owns 49% of the company, which bottles water under private-label agreements and its own Iroquois brand. “We are the largest aboriginal water-bottling company in the world,” says Dan Villeneuve, president and CEO.

The company is based on solid business principles. Cornwall Island has access to transportation, people and power, and “research told us that the water-bottling business was going to grow,” says Villeneuve. So far, so good: Iroquois logged sales of $127,000 in its first year of operation, a figure he expects to top $30 million this year. A whopping 95% of production goes to the U.S. export market.

Villeneuve credits Iroquois’ export growth to a strategic partnership with Cott Beverages Canada (an alliance that won top honors at the Ontario Global Traders Awards this past May). “Without Cott it would have been almost impossible to sustain the growth that we had,” says Villeneuve. Indian Act legislation that controls bank financing “really impairs the development of big projects like Iroquois, so having a strategic partner willing to venture with us was the saving grace of our company,” he says. “We had the people and the building and the equipment, what we needed was Cott’s financial stability, access to good, low-cost raw material, such as plastics, and distribution networks.

So, how does a tiny water-bottling firm make a splash with a partner the size of Cott? Villeneuve convinced the giant that he could help it get even larger. “We told them we could help them become the world’s largest private-label spring-water company and that we had the state-of-art machinery that they needed to get into the water business in a big way.” In addition to having the hardware to back up his offer, Villeneuve also had some impressive stats: the bottled-water industry is growing by as much as 35% a year, he says, and there has been a 2% decline in soft-drink consumption. Cott liked what it saw, and took an equity position in the aboriginal company. “That opened the door to large customers in the U.S and fueled our growth.”

But just as important as business success, the firm values its strong environmental and social principles. Located in the St. Lawrence River near the terminus of the Great Lakes, Cornwall Island has faced exposure to toxic waste from upstream industry that has severely degraded its land, wildlife, water and air. When a power-generating dam was built upstream in the 1950s, “about 75 years of uncontrolled industrial pollution was dredged up and put where our factory is today,” says Villeneuve. To help remedy “a very sad situation and spin it into something very positive,” Iroquois invests corporate profits in soil reclamation. “We don’t belly ache about it,” he says. “As a company it’s part of our responsibility.” The firm has also created ponds fed by its plant’s discharge water, which is all-natural and cleaner than the river water, he says. “We have lakes now on the property where we have birds and turtles, osprey, fox, mating pairs of geese and ducks. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”

Iroquois’ success has also boosted the Akwesasne reserve community, says Villeneuve. While the company employs 100 people directly, “There’s a dominoes effect with our plant,” he says. For example, spin-off jobs in transportation and restaurants are being created, helping build infrastructure in a community that people traditionally had to leave to get jobs or purchase nails, paint, food “or all the other things that we buy on a daily basis,” he says. “In a dollar sense, we’re into the millions here that were never here before for the reserve.”

Villeneuve hopes Iroquois will one day become the largest Canadian-owned water-bottling company. “We’d like to checkerboard our plants across Canada and the U.S., and emulate our success here,” he says. Plans also include increasing the distribution of its own Iroquois brand, currently sold in Ontario, New York state and Michigan, and expanding into foreign markets such as Asia and the Middle East.

Villeneuve encourages fellow Canadian exporters to take advantage of government programs and initiatives designed to facilitate export business. “They’re tools that people need, and they’re not just for large companies like the Bombardiers, they’re for small and medium-sized companies also,” he says. For example, “we have hundreds of offices around the world. They’re called embassies. If we want to do business abroad, they’re there.”

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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