Mr. Wright co-founded The Alkaline Water Company Inc. in 2012 as a premium water brand when the word “alkaline” was associated with the Energizer bunny. As the president and CEO, he oversees all aspects of the business and is successfully guiding the company through its hyper-growth phase, delivering greater than 50% growth since the company’s inception. In a short span of six years, The Alkaline Water company has captured approximately a 5% share of the functional water category and is the 10th largest enhanced water brand in the U.S. Recently, the company has announced its foray into the CBD space with a comprehensive line of ingestibles and topical products. The nascent CBD industry is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2024, according to industry analysts.
Mr. Wright is a serial entrepreneur with over 41 years of experience. He is a passionate and versatile leader with a strong track record of innovation, collaboration, and achieving goal-driven results. The earlier part of his career was spent at one of the “Big Four” accounting firms where he was a Regional Director of Tax and Financial Planning. As a former CFO, CPA, and entrepreneur, Mr. Wright has extensive knowledge of finance, operations, sales and marketing and has participated in 100’s of M&A transactions throughout his career. As a veteran beverage executive, he has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, featured on Cheddar live from the NYSE and TD Ameritrade’s Network live from Nasdaq, and continues to be quoted as an industry expert in several industry-focused trade publications on both functional water and CBD. When not working, Mr. Wright loves to spend time with his wife, 7 kids, and 14 grandkids and is actively involved in local charities.
Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It has been a 43-year-long journey, and nothing came quick and easy, but it’s proven to be a fortunate career. I came out of the Big 4, developed great disciplines and successful models that led to great ventures. After becoming regional director at one of the Big 4 accounting firms, I was enticed away with a large equity position to become president of a growing restaurant concept. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial experience. Based on the combination of my Big 4 experience and my early entrepreneurial ventures, I developed criteria to identify business opportunities and concepts that I felt had the chance to grow into major enterprises.
Since that time, every business I have entered into has been evaluated based on my “ABCD” criteria. They are: (A) do I have Access to the market, (B) is there an economic Benefit that would allow the company to become profitable in the future, (C) could I obtain the Capabilities to execute against the vision, and (D) was there sufficient or projected Demand to have significant scale? In addition, I like businesses that allow me to operate with a small team of experienced employees, have low capital commitments, a sales cycle that creates an annuity that has good margins, good cash flow, and pent up demand to allow for hyper sales growth. I’m a firm believer that “nothing happens in business without a sale”. I felt these criteria were met when I co-founded The Alkaline Water Company Inc., and were drivers for the expansion into the lifestyle brand “A88” that includes Alkaline88 water, flavored waters, and A88CBD, all of which continue to have tremendous growth potential.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I took the reins when we were less than 1M in revenue a month. We were reaching an inflection point. Less than 2% of the 1,500 beverage companies that start each year pass this mark. We were primarily a regional player and in order to meet our goals, we needed to become a national player as quickly as possible. Therefore, when I became CEO, we quadrupled our sales force almost overnight and doubled the number of co-packers. A CEO needs vision beyond current circumstances. Look forward to where you believe you will find the greatest incremental increase to enterprise value and drive your team accordingly.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The ability to look out in the future and understand the growing mega-trends and movements in the consumer products industry. I always evaluate the projected size of the market, whether mega-trends are building demand, and what percentage of the market we need to capture to become a substantial enterprise.
A key driver is demand because demand drives potential sales. You can have the best product in the world, but if you cannot sell it, you won’t be successful. The sales build slowly but you have to be ready to respond to substantial increases in demand with a solid team of people with great work ethic. We call ourselves “the grinders”. We look at everyday situations and problems and view those challenges as opportunities. One primary reason for our success is that we hire talented, entrepreneurial, classically trained people. My advice is to hire those that are smarter than you. Trust and empower these employees to get their work done on their own, and always be available to them if and when they need you.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO?”
Great question. I’d first say a CEO needs to have thick skin and a strong back. It can get truly lonely at the top. Stuff flows uphill, and the CEO of a company is “the face”, always in the spotlight. If something goes wrong, the CEO is the first to blame. I acutely became aware of this truism when I first logged onto Stocktwits after becoming CEO.
Secondly, you need to develop a strong working relationship with your Chairman and Board. They can help you with every aspect of your vision. We have an active board, particularly my Chairman, Aaron Keay, and Brian Sudano, managing partner of Beverage Marketing Corp. My board members give great insight and strategic advice that sets us up for further success. We leverage off each other to open up new markets and create superior products for our customers. The CBD development was a cooperative project with my board.
Thirdly, you may make a decision that is right for most businesses but it may not be the best for your business. For example, we work on a variable cost model across all 50 states and although it is successful in most regions, we needed to adapt our model in certain parts of the country based on longstanding business practices of our clients. #4: You need to trust your gut. I knew we needed to make a change in our single-serve labels for branding and packaging. Our products at the time had clear labels, and I felt they were getting lost on the retail shelves. There was resistance amongst my management and board to make the change. Our new white labels are now the best labels in the industry! They are clean, stand out on the shelf, and reflect our core values in the packaging.
Finally, despite the lofty title of CEO, attention to detail is more important than ever. Oftentimes, CEOs get a bad rep for golfing too much or not being as hands-on as they need to be. Since I’ve become a CEO, I’ve learned it is important to be involved in the details of any major initiative. Our 2-liter is now in the marketplace. I worked closely with my team over the last four months on the design and marketing objectives. My team’s collaborative effort resulted in solid execution with our first sale to a major retailer, Home Goods!
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I enjoy what I do even though there are daily grinds and challenges. The easiest way not to burn out is to hire extremely smart and talented people and rely on them. I touch base with my team and all four key people at least once a day if not more. Stay on point and focus on the larger picture while fostering your working relationships.
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?
I’ve had a long career with amazing people that have been like mentors over the years. One in particular was Bill Sellers, managing partner at Arthur Young & Company’s Cleveland Office. He helped me understand the value of systems, planning, and having objectives. He showed me how to take those objectives and dreams and have a methodical way to accomplish them: access, capability, demand, etc. He is the reason why this is ingrained in my brain. If you surround yourself with successful people, take what you learned from each of them to create your own best self. Bill is always in the back of my brain giving me tips and tools to use for the rest of my life.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I’m blessed with a big family (15 grandkids!) and feel very fortunate. I’ve experienced tragedies, but also feel that I’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m content with where I am today. I love knowing that I am creating jobs and my lasting legacy is to share the success by providing for families through the businesses I’ve run and developed over my lifetime. I’ll be an entrepreneur until the day I die! I’d like to write a book or two to share my knowledge, but for now, that is on hold. Right now, I am focusing on Alkaline88 to build it to be a well-recognized brand nationally and find the right buyer for it.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope my legacy continues through my great-grandchildren. I always say, “people matter, not things”. My kids have all manifested that from working in orphanages, working with the homeless, third grade reading programs, etc. My legacy is through my family.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I’ve always had a heart for the inner city. I believe because of the current climate, there will eventually be many vacant buildings, and the age of the home office is becoming a reality. I’d love to find other entrepreneurs that want to start a business and enterprise, taking these spaces to provide decent childcare so that families in the inner cities can have a work-life balance. With safe and reliable childcare, we can help people in cities find jobs that allow their families to have a better future.
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