Joe Beeston: Chief executive of Highland Spring and champion of bottled water industry

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.

Paul Levy

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world