Distributors can drain you financially. Since distributors have to send you a check in the mail, they get 1st dibs at deducting chargebacks for all kinds of creative things from your check. You can then go dispute it, but that will take months and your dispute will most likely be denied, so build this cost into your finances. However, they are a necessity and you can’t be in business without the distributors, so plan ahead and get to know the formula.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jose Fernandez.
Jose Fernandez is the managing principal of TEN Alkaline Spring Water, 10pH, a Boca Raton-based company that is an industry leader in alkaline water positioned for retail. Prior to founding Sang Beverages, LLC Fernandez spent over 20 years in law firm administration, finance and technology. After initially working for a AMLaw 100 ranked firm, Fernandez was a founding member of Legal Applications Holding Corp the developer of Client Profiles, a Case and Financial Management software application for the legal vertical space, and eventually sold the company in late 2011 before embarking on his new venture TEN in 2012–2013. Fernandez graduated from Florida International University, Miami, FL with a degree in Business Administration.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Back in 2012, a former business partner from a prior venture introduced me to the benefits of drinking alkaline water. I immediately started purchasing it and after a few months noticed a major difference in how I felt. I had changed nothing else in my lifestyle or eating habits, so it had to be the alkaline water. I felt sharper, less thrashy, exhausted and had more energy throughout the day. I again confirmed it was the water months later when I traveled overseas and did not have access to alkaline water for a period exceeding a week or two. I felt that major change in my body during the days where I was only drinking standard water from bottles or at restaurants.
So in discussions with my former and current business partners, we started to explore how to create a new brand of alkaline water, one that would be different from what was already in the marketplace. Our company was formed in 2013 and the new brand (TEN Spring Water) launched that same summer.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When we first started the brand, we knew we had a great proof of concept but the challenge was getting other partners such as bottlers and distributors to see the potential in the product since we were the “new kid on the block.” There were already a lot of bottled water brands on the market, so it was a competitive marketplace. We knew we had to have a product that was like nothing else available at the time. By sticking with the vision, things eventually became easier. We were able to overcome these hurdles and ultimately develop a network of partners who believe in the product as much as we do. It’s simple, develop a quality one-of-a-kind product that customers crave and people will want to be involved with to make it successful.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There’s no way to go back. I hit a pain point in May of 2016, and at that moment knew if I threw in the towel…..we’d be done, we would have just written-off the last 3+ years of efforts and passion. Not to mention all of the financial pain you experienced in that time frame. Having that skin in the game creates resilience, and makes it harder to not just give up when times get tough.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Well, we are now 7 years old and we have a hugely successful brand in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. We continue to make strides in additional regions throughout the country and the progress is exciting. We entered 2020 with plans to grow beyond our strongest regions with the help of Acosta, a national broker with which we entered into a partnership in November 2019.
Unfortunately, COVID hit, bringing challenges for the U.S. and the World, and this affected our strategy with brand development and sales. Many of the reviews and opportunities were put on hold and will be revisited for 2021. Overall though, we had a good year, and despite all challenges, the brand grew 15% since 2019. During this time we unveiled a new product, a 12-ounce aluminum can in an 8-pack which launched at some major retailers in June 2020, most notably at Publix Super Markets in the Southeast.
This is a big deal in regards to the reduction of single-serve plastic since aluminum recycling is so advanced! Our 1-gallon bottle is the #2 selling alkaline gallon jugs in the continental United States, and I say that with great emphasis since we are not yet a national-coast-to-coast brand. We have all kept busy bottling water, freighting, warehousing, refreshing the brand look and taking care of our customers when they have questions and/or concerns. Lastly, we are preparing enthusiastically for the year ahead.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have to think about this one. I just don’t know if I have a funny mistake to tell you about. I’ve thought and thought, but indeed everyone makes mistakes and you learn and grow because of those. When running a company, if you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t trying new things or being put in a position to expand and grow.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The taste and high quality of our water is second to none. The high pH, the natural spring sources and the overall health benefits — these characteristics of the brand are highly valued by TEN customers. Also, the price point is important. The brand loyalty from our customers is a great story and source of inspiration. The amount of calls, emails and outreach we receive from our customers telling us how much they love the water, how great it tastes, how it helped them feel better, perform better, and/or how drinking the water helped eliminate an ailment of some sort keeps us highly engaged. We love to hear from our customers, and they are our #1 priority.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is a long journey, filled with lots of small obstacles, and unless you have a huge startup war chest it will take years. Unless you’re a Coke or a Pepsi, even with lots of cash behind you it will still take years securing a spot on the shelves. Be prepared for a long haul and know it’s not just you… it’s the process of the industry and knowing it is very competitive. Just think, all of us “other brands” are playing for the remaining 10–20% of the water isle shelf space and now there are also Private Label brands filling up the shelves. So stay focused, keep calm, stay the course and know that quality and customers matter most. If you have the right brand, right pricing and right idea over a long extended period of time the doors will eventually crack open and you will be ready.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
That’s an easy one. That would be George Sandrini, our # 2 at TEN and my brother-in-law since the startup of this venture, which includes the discovery process going back to 2012 and launch in 2013. George has seen it all and has been the foundation through the good, the bad and the ugly. Many times, we’ve been together thinking we need to go get a job during those initial 5 or so years as bills and vendors had to be paid, and we were last in line.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Charitable giving and gifting. My wife, Sabina takes care of that for our family. It just happens and we help out wherever needed and when we can.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You will want to quit and call it a day many times, but you should not if you have a good product, idea and the financial means to develop it to its fruition.
- You are going to be learning lots of new industry-specific acronyms. Ie. Disco’d (Discontinued), MCB (Manufacturer Chargeback, OI (Off Invoice), etc.
- Things you could never imagine will most likely happen. Good and bad. One good thing that happened is the Carolina Panthers fell in love with TEN Water during their Super Bowl year and many players on that team became avid fans of TEN. That was exciting and was a big boost for our young brand at the time. Interestingly enough, in 2020 the Pittsburgh Steelers drank 2 pallets of TEN each month, and they are undefeated this season.
- Freight is a big deal in this business. The influence of the trucking industry is not only vital for the US economy, it is fundamentally one of the 5 pillars of our brand. Blown out tires, broken down trucks, bad wood (pallets damaged by forklifts), who would have none etc….
- Distributors can drain you financially. Since distributors have to send you a check in the mail, they get 1st dibs at deducting chargebacks for all kinds of creative things from your check. You can then go dispute it, but that will take months and your dispute will most likely be denied, so build this cost into your finances. However, they are a necessity and you can’t be in business without the distributors, so plan ahead and get to know the formula.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
In addition to a vaccine, I would have an organization that focuses on peace for the American people and a reset of our differences as we are all more similar than different. A focus on like-minded priorities like taking care of our families and understanding that our future is tied together for our children and our children’s children. Going forward, global health, peace, nutrition, financial stability and, naturally, access to the best alkaline water!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
The best way is to follow TEN Alkaline Spring Water on Facebook or Instagram @tenwater. Otherwise, the best bet is to follow my wife Sabina Sandrini-Fernandez. She takes care of that as well for our business and household.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!