Spotlight on sparkling water entrepreneur
He comes from the storied and colorful Callaway family that, at its core, has promoted sound stewardship and protection of our natural environment.
So it’s not a stretch at all that Hollis Callaway, the grandson of Cason J. Callaway Jr., who was the brother of Howard “Bo” Callaway, would want to bring a product to market that refreshes the thirst of people through a natural spring found on Callaway land. That would be Blue Springs in Hamilton, Ga., just north of Columbus.
While his father, Ken Callaway, does operate the well-known Callaway Blue Spring Water line that now is sold through much of the Southeast, the younger Callaway said he wants to stand on his own two feet and make what he has branded as Montane Sparkling Spring Water a brisk-selling success.
Montane, which is a reference to the Montane Longleaf Pine that is found in the Southeast, comes in three varieties thus far — original, cucumber lime and meyer lemon honeysuckle. The market for now is between Atlanta and Columbus, both of those cities the playground of the water-loving Callaway who enjoys kayaking the Chattahoochee River and the local whitewater course.
The great-grandson of Cason and Virginia Hand Callaway, founders of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer recently to discuss his job, the adventure that he is now on, and just how big he would like his sparkling water venture to be. He noted that the Georgia Forestry Commission has granted the Callaway land through which Blue Springs flows a conservation easement, which recognizes its ecological importance and protects it perpetually. This interview is edited a for length and clarity.
Q. You’re part of the Callaway lineage. Is there pressure at all to make an impact on the world and environment in some way?
A. I was always supported and encouraged. I wouldn’t describe it as pressure. I think we’re all encouraged to be ourselves. I would describe it as support to become who you are. It’s a great legacy to learn from and be a part of and I see this business as a way to align what I do for a living with those values and benefiting both people and the planet.
Q. You’ve worked in sales and in the financial world. Was that career path intentional?
A. I graduated not long after the financial crisis of 2008 and it was a pretty tough time for fresh graduates. But I was motivated to get professional experience. I did not have the pick of what I wanted to do, but ultimately I did get to where I want to be. I kind of view it as chapters in life; you learn and grow and move on to the next chapter.
Q. How long have you been planning this sparkling water chapter?
A. I’ve been working on this for about 10 months. The idea had been around for awhile and when I was working in the corporate environment I knew that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I would keep a list of ideas and graded them on how much money it would cost to start them, what the prospects would be like, what the challenges would be. I still have that list, but this just seemed like the best fit. And I began making healthier eating decisions and drinking sparkling water myself. So it was kind of an obvious choice.
Q. Are you aligned with Callaway Blue?
A. Callaway Blue is run by my father, Ken, and this is a separate company. I intentionally wanted to have autonomy in the branding and decision-making. But it is using the Blue Springs water and I do get a lot of support from the family, such as helping work through my business plan and logistics. Sometimes there’s a simple question that I don’t know. So it’s great to have that support and autonomy. I feel like I get the best of both worlds.
Q. Your father is a sounding board for you?
A. Absolutely. People have asked in the past why I didn’t go to work with my dad and my answer is always: I love my dad, we get along great and I want to keep it that way.
Q. So you purchase your water from Callaway Blue?
A. I buy the water from them, yes.
Q. How far is their reach in the market?
A. They are systemwide in all 1,100 Publix stores, so that’s throughout the Southeast. Mainly, Georgia is the most business for them, but they’re from North Carolina to Florida and then Alabama.
Q. Does that mean you have a foothold into Publix?
A. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I have to stand on my own and Publix evaluates everybody individually.
Q. That means you’re on the streets a lot and making calls to prospective customers?
A. Absolutely. Fortunately, it’s an easy story for me to tell because it’s something that I’m passionate about. If you want to hear the spiel, I can go through that.
Q. Sure, go ahead.
A. I’m using distributors, so I’m only doing a limited amount of deliveries myself. I’m focused on getting people signed up and then it’s serviced by a distributor. The way a sales call typically works with me is I walk in with some cold samples and I just introduce myself. I say: My name’s Hollis and I live around here and I’m launching a sparkling spring water brand. I would love for you to try it and, if you think it’s the right fit, sell it in your store. If I have more time, I’ll talk about what makes this unique.
Q. What does make it unique or stand out?
A. What really makes it unique is the spring. The spring, geologically, is unlike any that we’re aware of on Earth. Most streams flow through sedimentary rock like limestone or dolomite. Those springs are created through millions of years of erosion and they impart high total dissolved solid content in the water, and that gives it a heavy mouthfeel. Blue Springs (water flows through) quartzite rock. It’s a non-carbonate hard rock. It will never erode.
Q. That means there’s no sediment coming off the stone into the water?
A. Exactly. And it’s exceptionally pure. It has 31 parts per million total dissolved solids, which is rarely found in nature, and it flows at about 500 gallons per minute, 64 degrees, 365 days a year.
Q. Which adds up to good taste?
A. The 31 parts per million and the purity gives it a refreshing taste. For people who have a refined palate — some wine connoisseurs can taste very subtle things — it’s very noticeable difference.
Q. Can you literally drink the water out of the ground?
A. I do, yes. It’s tapped 300 feet below the surface and in an enclosed and protected pipe taken to the factory. That’s what consumers drink. But personally I drink it from the source.
Q. How did you come up with the two flavors, cucumber lime and meyer lemon honeysuckle?
A. With these flavors we made a list of 15 or 20 combinations and did three rounds of taste tests and just got as many people in a room as I could, and people gave their input and these are the ones that stood out the most.
Q. How many establishments carry your water now?
A. About 15 between Atlanta and Columbus.
Q. So you need to ramp things up?
A. This is all very new. I’ve been selling for three weeks now. So I’m adding new accounts every day and I’m happy with the growth.
Q. Where can the water be found in Columbus?
A. So far at Iron Bank, Maltitude, Whitewater Express, Wheely's and Juice Bar.
Q. Are there many water beverage competitors out there?
A. Not really. Nestle, National Beverage and Coca-Cola, and Dr. Pepper and Pepsi to a lesser degree. Nestle owns San Pellegrino Poland Spring and all of their regional brands. A lot of the water that people drink, Nestle’s behind it whether they know it or not. So it’s not an entirely competitive landscape.
Q. What’s an average day like for you, venturing out to sell a lot?
A. I’ll either have an office day or an out-of-the-office day where I’m selling. The office is handling invoices, managing inventory and working on conveying our story. A major part of beverages is branding and deciding what message to deliver to people. With (Blue Springs) and the area around it, there are a lot of different aspects to the story and they’re all great in my opinion, but I need to condense it, edit it, and focus it and figure out what works best and what is relatable to folks.
Q. What do you like the most about the branding aspect of it?
A. I like sharing it with people and sharing the story. It comes naturally. So getting people to try it and telling them the story of the spring is what I like most about it.
Q. How far do you try to market the water now?
A. To launch, I’m focused on Atlanta and Columbus. Once I’ve gotten some traction, I’ll go wider. Ultimately, I would like it to be throughout the Southeast.
Q. Could you go beyond the Southeast at some point?
A. Potentially, but it’s expensive. Water’s heavy, and moving it outside of the region is expensive. That’s why the major players have distributed production. They have factories all around the country producing the same product. But since I’m tied to the source, it’s limiting.
Q. What types of places are you in now?
A. Restaurants, coffee shops, delis and a few smaller grocery stores.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
A. Again, I think conveying the story and getting people’s attention long enough to tell the story and getting them to become a fan … Converting this (branding) to digital and broadcasting the message wider on social media and my website is difficult because people aren’t paying as close attention. Their attention spans are shorter.
Q. Finally, if things go well, where will you be and how big will you be in a year?
A. Once I’ve proven that people like the beverage and I can take that and show it to a grocery chain, I would like to have wider distribution. Right now I’m working on developing the enthusiasm from consumers and proving sales. A year from now I’d like to be able to show that to a grocery chain and say: Hey, I deserve to be on your shelf because I’ve proven it’s something that people want.
Current residence: Spends half of his time in Hamilton, Ga., just north of Columbus, and the other half in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta
Education: Attended Brookstone School through 8th grade; graduate of Episcopal High School; 2008 graduate of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
Previous jobs: His first job at age 16 was wings and toast cook at Zaxby’s on Bradley Park Drive; his most recent job was trade operations analyst at InterContinental Exchange/New York Stock Exchange
Leisure time: Enjoys bicycling and paddling, including on the whitewater course in downtown Columbus
Of note: He twice navigated the Chattahoochee River from Rotary Park in Columbus all the way to Apalachicola, Fla., on the Gulf Coast