Joe Beeston: Chief executive of Highland Spring and champion of bottled water industry
Tuesday 04 March 2008
Joe Beeston, chief executive of Highland Spring, presided over the growth of the mineral water to its present best-selling position and was living proof of the adage that you need a lot of bottle to sell water. He achieved "organic" status for Highland Spring in 2001, the first bottled water brand to be granted such status by the UK Soil Association, because it springs from organic land beneath the Ochil Hills, in central Scotland. He also boasted that he had pioneered mineral water for children, to wean them away from sugary drinks, introducing Highland Spring for Kids.
He was the bottled water industry's most ardent advocate. But in the month in which he died, the tide of opinion seems to have shifted strongly against his position, and it looks as though environmentalists will now wage an unstoppable campaign to get consumers to switch to tap water. As recently as July 2006, Beeston was trying to stick his finger in the dyke, writing to this newspaper to argue against a leading article which argued that it was "environmental insanity" to drink bottled water. No, it's not, he thundered:
It is environmental insanity not to have an effective waste recovery, re-use and recycling policy in the UK. Your leader urged the public to "drink tap water. We promise it won't make you ill". Really? The Chief Inspector of Drinking Water points out a number of areas where it might just do that – lead piping still in the distribution system, cases of cryptosporidiosis linked to the mains supply. What would happen if "bottled water" were banned? Would people turn to tap water? No, consumers would simply revert to other soft drinks, so there would be no significant reduction in food miles, no fewer bottles going to landfill or less energy consumption.
Now, less than two years later, with the balance of opinion changed, Beeston's forceful assertions look more like bluster than reasoned argument. He continued: "Some 75 per cent of the bottled water consumed in the UK is produced right here in rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland. Unlike tap water, at Highland Spring we do not need to disinfect our water, or use additives to protect it from lead pipes. We add nothing, except for CO2 to make it sparkle. Most bottled waters sold in the UK are environmental products, naturally purified and harvested on a sustainable basis, thus ensuring future employment in a remote rural area."
This letter was typical of the ebullient personality and blunt speaking of the man, small of stature (the staff at the bottling plants at Blackford referred to him as "wee Joe"), but big of heart and ambition. During his last week, Beeston watched the BBC's Panorama programme that slammed his industry. After it finished, he sent a message to the rest of the management team: "What a load of rubbish. I think I'll toast that with a beer."
Joe Beeston was born in Camden Town in London, in 1947. He was taken, aged 11, with his two brothers to Newcastle, the chief effect of which was to make him a lifelong supported of Newcastle United. He passed his 11-plus easily, but lasted only six weeks at the local grammar school, saying he had returned to his comprehensive to "hone his street skills".
He left school as soon as he could, and, at 15, got a job as an office boy in a wine importers. He then joined Grants of St James, and rose to become sales director, having moved to Yorkshire with his first wife, Maggie. He stayed with Grants until 1979.
From there he went to Enotria Wines as sales director. The company had been founded a few years earlier and was at that time the country's leading importer of Italian wines. After a year Beeston joined United Rum Merchants, a division of Allied Distillers in Horsham, and stayed there for 10 years until 1990, eventually becoming Managing Director.
He then set up as an independent business consultant, until 1992 when he became chief executive of Highland Spring Ltd. His wine-trade experience had been entirely on the commercial side, mostly marketing branded spirits, so this was no great leap.
His colleagues regarded him as a strategic thinker, and a natural marketer. He was very aware of appearances, and said that for a brand to become big, it had to look big. So he negotiated a deal with British Airways to give Highland Spring some international resonance, and followed his own instincts and interests hooking up with sports agencies who got the brand associated with snooker, even though, in those days, television advertising itself was way outside his budget. He loved football too, of course, and Formula One racing; and as the business grew, he pushed his sponsorship and promotion money in these directions, particularly relishing the friendships this allowed him to make with sports figures.
His greatest achievement was displacing Perrier as the leading brand of sparkling water in Britain. Highland Spring also displaced Volvic from the number two spot (behind Evian) in overall UK sales of mineral water, domestic or foreign.
In 2005 the security forces that had taken control of Gleneagles and Auchterarder for the G8 summit of world leaders demanded access to Highland Spring land to keep out the protesters and any would-be terrorists. No problem at all, said "wee Joe" Beeston, so long as the world's statesmen were photographed drinking Highland Spring.
Associates said of him that, despite his lack of formal qualifications, he had a formidable intellect, and that, though he was always a maverick, he became an elder statesman of sorts in the bottled water industry, where his opinion mattered a good deal. He had taken over Highland Spring at the time of the great controversy over the extraction of the water from an artesian well in the old Gleneagles Maltings – the source came from the Ochil Hills above Blackford.
Beeston was, said a statement issued by the company, not always an easy man to deal with and "could be very brittle to those on the end of an ear bashing, but the fact was, he was usually right." His own drink was not bottled water but plenty of cold beer.
Joseph James Beeston, businessman: born London 23 February 1947; OBE 2005; chief executive, Highland Spring 1992-2008; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Exeter 25 February 2008.
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