From Family Business in Fiji to International Bottled Water Brands
When Cate and Warwick Pleass, both Australian nationals, came to Fiji in 1996, they started a small business selling water dispensers and coolers. They quickly turned to exploit a water source on their land and developed what is now one of the largest bottled artesian water companies in Fiji, serving the national and international markets.
Pleass Global Limited markets two main brands of bottled water: AquaSafe,® and VaiWai®. AquaSafe® has the lion's share of the market in Fiji, said Cate, marketing and HR Director. VaiWai®, whose name is a reference to the word “water” in Polynesian and Fijian, is the company’s export brand.
“We realized that there was an unreliable supply and quality of municipal water, and a strong demand for premium, good quality water, and identified that Fiji water is one of the best in the world,” she explained.
Rainfall in Fiji averages 4,5 liters per year, feeding the aquifer from which Pleass’ water is sourced, on the property. Fiji has a small population, with very little industry, so is almost exempt from contaminants. The water is very pure, particularly because Pleass’ water comes from a rainforest precinct that has never been farmed, lived on, and has no human activity. Cate explained that Pleass manages their water source on organic certified land to protect the water. “Whatever you do on top of the ground, will ultimately affect the water source.”
Pleass water has been praised for its low mineral content, natural alkalinity, and subtle flavor from the geology. It also has a substantial amount of silica, which gives it a very smooth and palatable taste, Cate said. VaiWai® has recently won a Diamond Award for 5 years consecutive taste awards, and 3 gold star achievements from the International Taste Institute in Brussels. All sourcing, bottling, packaging, treatment, and dispatching are done on the property, located on a 420-acre estate in Namosi.
AquaSafe® is a premium quality water but, according to Cate, it is accessible to most of the community in the Fiji market. VaiWai® natural artesian water is a more expensive brand and is sold primarily through high-end retail, and resort hotels, but both brands are equally premium quality water, Cate underlined.
The small family business founded by Warwick achieved an average of 30% growth compounded over thirteen years. In 2009, the company was listed on the stock exchange, overselling its initial public offering. Its stakeholders include institutional entities, corporations, and individuals.
Now staffed with 130 employees, Pleass Global exports to the United States, China, most Pacific countries, some parts of Asia, and in a smaller proportion to Europe.
Operating from a small island, Pleass’ biggest challenge is Fiji’s isolation, the fact that it is a small country, with a very small population. The island also faces natural disasters, cyclones and floods made more frequent and intense due to climate change, unreliable power supply, and the lack of skilled labor, as many people leave the island in search of better living conditions in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Europe.
Intellectual property is vitally important for Pleass, both at the start of the business and now, according to Cate. “We go to great lengths to protect our IP because it is our property, and it is so important when dealing with export markets.”
Pleass relies on its strong branding on bottles, designs, and labels. The company also conducts a lot of R&D work and protects its innovations with patents through the WIPO PCT.
In the next five years, Pleass intends to continue growing and expanding. Covid-19 has hindered business but 2022 has been a very strong year of growth, Cate said. “We continue to develop new products and new brands.” “We are also growing our export reach and are expecting to grow significantly to South America and South-East Asia.”
Pleass also operates an adventure eco-tourism park and has a long-established business of single-use packaging items serving hotels, corporates, airlines, hotels, resorts, and retailers. A significant part of the business years ago, it is no longer the case, Cate explained as bottled water has grown so significantly.
Cate mentioned the lack of significant recycling operations in Fiji, and the need for industrial-level recycling to deal with plastic waste. “Plastic is not going anywhere,” she said, “but the industry is working to find solutions.” Pleass just launched a “buy my brand in glass” campaign for still and sparkling water to encourage people to reduce their use of plastic. “There is a big consumer appetite for such products,” she added.
Sustainability has always been embedded in the organization. “We sustainably manage our aquifers, with hydrogeology assessments every six months. Under our organic certification we can use our mulch from the ground and tropical rainforest debris as fertilizers and we try to reuse and recycle whatever we can,” Cate specified.
Pleass is a major donor to Rotary Pacific Water for Life Foundation, established in 2007. “Many communities in Fiji do not have access to safe water or to sanitation, which creates all sorts of issues with water-borne illnesses, hygiene-related illnesses, and untreated sewage going into the ground,” according to Cate. The foundation supplies communities with safe water and sanitation “We have been very strong as a water manufacturer with a focus on quality water in making sure those communities get safe drinking water to get rid of things like Typhoid, diarrhea, parasitic infections, which are very prevalent in some communities in Fiji.”
The company also supports sports, walkathons, sporting clubs, and a variety of activities around sport, health, fitness, and disease prevention, as well as providing scholarships.