Mike McFarland, co-founder of the leading equipment manufacturer for small to mid-sized bottlers in the United States, actually got his feet wet in the industry with a point of use equipment manufacturer where he worked for 14 years before creating Norland Int’l Inc. with four investors in 1993. Like most POU manufacturers, his former employer had a dominant residential equipment business but marketed limited equipment to the bottled water industry.
“There were a few companies marketing products to the small to medium-sized bottled water operators,” McFarland says, “but the majority of equipment was sized for significantly larger operations like Sparkletts, Arrowhead or Hinkley Schmidt.”
McFarland saw a significant market potential for more advanced equipment in smaller, remote areas. “Another segment of the market that excited me was the potential of urban areas where delivery was expensive, difficult and time consuming,” he says. With a large, centralized bottling plant, drivers spent a hefty percentage of each workday driving to and from a primary delivery area; the fuel costs were starting to rise and became a major concern to the large bottled water companies.
At the time, conventional bottle washing and filling equipment was not overly sophisticated and was typically very inefficient. “Some of the equipment for washing three- and five-gallon bottles available in the early 90’s resembled commercial dishwashing equipment. It wasted a gallon or more of hot water for every bottle washed and required lots of detergent and sanitizing solution,” McFarland says.
Moreover, the majority of equipment suppliers did not supply the complete package of water treatment, purification, storage, post treatment, washing and filling equipment. Most specialized in supplying just a portion of the bottlers’ requirements and often a product from one supplier would not work with equipment from another.
With so many needs being overlooked for the small to mid-sized bottler, instead of simply improving upon products already on the market, McFarland started from scratch. The Norland business was built in the basement of his home. One-by-one, key personnel were added to perform the necessary functions within the company such as accounting, customer service, sales and marketing.
Changing the industry one bottle at a time
Today, Norland Int’l Inc., has about 60 employees at the company’s headquarters and their products are helping bottlers of all sizes find success worldwide. With quality manufacturing and a commitment to after-sale support, Norland has carved out two key niches in the bottled water industry: three to five-gallon returnable bottles and smaller, non-returnable (500ml to two liter) bottles.
“Our large bottle product line started with smaller equipment, but as our customers have grown, so has our equipment. Our first bottle washers handled 50 and 150 bottles per hour. We are now working on equipment that will wash, fill and cap up to 1200 bottles per hour.” McFarland said. “In addition, we are working on equipment for placing the large bottles into racks automatically.”
Much of their recent success has come from their new Freedom line of Blow Molders. Demand for the line, which includes 1500, 3000 and 4500 bottler-per-hour blow molders, has consistently exceeded the company’s projections.
New at Norland
By November, Norland will debut a blow molder system for producing three-, four- and five-gallon bottles. “We envision a significant market for less-expensive large bottles than those currently available,” McFarland says. “A number of customers have asked for bottles that can be sold to consumers without the expense or hassle of charging a deposit on the bottles as is the norm now for polycarbonate bottles. These types of bottles would be ideal for someone going to remote locations who wants to have access to a fairly large quantity of bottled water without buying many cases of small bottles or troubling with returning the bottles to recoup their deposit.”
In addition to producing PET bottles, Norland equipment will be able to produce bottles from PLA – a relatively new type of plastic made from corn instead of petroleum (the chief ingredient in PET bottles). “The main advantage of PLA is the remarkable benefit to the environment,” He says.
Bottles produced from PLA will normally decompose in a landfill in approximately 100 days, while PET bottles require an estimated 2000 years to decompose.
“We have been working closely with the developer of PLA and expect it to be a huge hit in the small and large bottle market,” McFarland says. “While we have not yet produced five-gallon PLA bottles, we expect to have PLA bottles produced before the end of the year. The introduction of PLA bottles will be a big step toward allaying environmental concerns about the industry’s use of water bottles that are generally not recycled,” McFarland says. “ I believe this will prove to be a huge first step. “
Combating negative press
The success of PLA bottles is a key step in combating the persistent negative stereotype that the bottled water industry has been nagged by for years, McFarland says. There has been a small but vocal group of opponents of bottled water, questioning the safety of the product and its necessity in a more environmentally sensitive world. While that press has done little to harm bottled water sales worldwide, McFarland says it is an issue that must be constantly addressed by bottlers of all sizes.
“ It is very apparent to me that most folks prefer the taste and convenience of bottled water regardless of the negative press,” he says. “It may impact a person’s view towards one brand of bottled over another, but not their feelings towards bottled water in general.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies bottled water as a food and every state has regulations over how the bottling must be completed. Virtually every bottler faces regular inspections and follows good manufacturing practices such as those established by the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), McFarland says. ”Some of the stories that I’ve seen state inaccurate information such as bottled water manufacturers are not required to regularly check their product water. Anyone in this industry knows how far from the truth such statements are.”
The key, McFarland says, is to make sure that consumers know it too.
On the horizon
“We at Norland see very bright days ahead for the bottled water industry,” McFarland says. As the efficiency of production and delivery continues to improve, the prevalence of successful small to mid-sized bottlers will increase. However, there are some key roadblocks for the industry that will factor in greatly in the years to come.
Chief among them is enhanced regulation and more frequent testing requirements for the industry, McFarland says. “On the surface, more regulation may be a pain, especially for a small or medium sized bottler, but ultimately this will be good for the consumer and good for the industry.”
With more environmentally-friendly products like PLA becoming the norm, greater efficiency and a more concerted effort by the industry to promote its products in the face of negative press, the sky is the limit for the bottled water business.
Norland Int’l Inc.
PO Box 67189
Lincoln, NE 68506 USA
Co-Founder/President: Mike McFarland
# of Employees: ~60
Phone: (402) 441-3737
Fax: (402) 441-3735
Quote: The trend for bottled water will be towards water with flavors added and “functional” type waters. The market clearly continues to make new demands and promote new interests. The progressive bottlers will keep pace with these new trends.