In 2004, Nayana Williams, a St Mary native who was living in the United States, moved back to Jamaica with her husband to settle in Buff Bay, Portland. Williams said at the time she had just had a newborn and wanted to be with her family full-time, instead of seeing them "on and off" throughout the year.
But the young woman, who was to become a co-founder and CEO of Lifespan Company Limited – a spring water bottling company– had to show resilience to even get into business.
"At the time, when I moved to Portland, Portland didn't have any career opportunities for me and I am a career person, so I started looking around at the natural resources that were available," Williams explained.
"I'm an avid water drinker," Williams told the Jamaica Observer, before acknowledging that numerous natural springs in Portland helped convince her to get into the bottled spring water business.
"After I did the research, I did a business plan with some projections and so on and then I pitched it to my husband and he was sold right away." Her husband was also tasked with finding the source of the spring that she would use for the water she planned to bottle.
"Initially, we found a source and we applied to the Government to get a lease for the land in Spring Gardens, Portland. But the process was taking a long time. It took a very long time for the Government to come back to us, so we started to look for a secondary option. But we got the water from both sources tested [and since the Government was taking long to reply to our request], and we found the owner for the second source...and we went to see them and got them to lease the property to us," she recounted.
"The name – Lifespan – that was not me. My husband and I were travelling to the north coast one day...and we were trying to come up with a name for the company and for the brand. I was telling him what I wanted the name to express, and he was calling out some names, and when he said 'Lifespan', I was just like 'that's it!'." The name was later registered.
With a source for the spring water and a name for the product, Williams said her husband set about helping her to realise her dream. He constructed "a little area to hold a pump house on the property". But she said there was an issue with the property and complications over its ownership, which threatened her efforts to get started. Williams said she returned to the Government agency to approve the lease for the first property – but that approval took five years. It meant the company was only able to move to the preferred Spring Garden location in 2010.
Undaunted, the young entrepreneur said she chose the only way out for her at the time. She built a small bottling facility elsewhere and trucked the water to that location to fill the bottles.
Getting money to start was, however, not easy.
"There was a little saving, so we took that saving and sold what we could. My husband sold his vehicle and bought a [cheaper] old[er] vehicle. We sold anything else which we could sell, and we also borrowed from friends and family to start up," she recalled. "We were still lack of capital though, but the banks would not lend us any money."
Her husband and his brother built the first plant using containers and plyboard. While the company started in January 2005, Williams said no product was sold until June 2006 "because we had to get it right."
That meant bottling water and testing it over and over again to find how how long it remained "good" after bottling. Having "mastered" the product and satisfied herself that it was ready for market, Williams set about to get her first sale.
"We bottled water and packed them in cartons, loaded them onto our pickup truck and headed to east Portland. Along the way we would stop at different shops and try to sell them. We only sold 10 cases the first day," Williams continued. Rejections were common.
"I remember this one particular incident when I approached a wholesaler, and this was a huge beverage wholesaler in Portland. Every week when I stopped there and asked him to purchase from me, he would say 'come back next week, come back next week', and everytime I go back, he would just say 'next week'. So the last time when I went, before he could tell me next week, I unloaded," she said with a smile. "I knew how many cases to take off because what I had done the week before when he told 'next week', I asked him how many cases he would be taking next week, and he told me 25 cases. So I ensured I unloaded [25 cases], the next week when I got there."
Williams said before the week was over, the wholesaler called asking for another 25 cases of her Lifespan spring water. Sales were picking up, but a few dozen cases sold each week were not bringing in enough money to absorb all the costs.
"I didn't take a salary for seven years," she said as she outlined the nature of the financial struggles the business faced in the early days. She said she was laser-focused on building the business, but got frustrated at one point because she had no capital to ramp up production. There was not enough money to buy adequate packaging material and using the family pickup truck for distribution severely restricted how many cases of water she could carry at one time.
"So I was calling around. I called the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC) and this lady spoke to me and listened to what I was saying. I told her everything, all the constraints that I was facing and how I felt like giving up [on the business] and she was like, 'no, you are onto something good'." Williams said the woman told her the JBDC would soon have a financing facility which she could access. When the financing facility was created, Lifespan secured a $3-million loan, which was used to purchase more packaging material. She also needed a truck, but banks wouldn't lend the young business any money. Her husband borrowed the money for the truck as a personal auto loan.
"But the bank said they would only [lend] us 60 per cent [of the money], so we went to another bank and outlined our situation, and that other bank said they would lend us 75 per cent, but we still didn't have money for the other 25 per cent!" Williams said after going from bank to bank, she was eventually able to secure a loan for 90 per cent of the cost of the truck. This was in 2007.
The truck allowed the company to distribute larger quantities and also to push outside Portland. Word of mouth was making the product known.
"There was this proprietor in Ocho Rios who called me one day and ordered 150 cases and this was like the biggest order ever," Williams said with a light chuckle. "I was so happy. I felt really good, this was a big order for us." She said with a brand new truck, the 150 cases of water were delivered and an order for another 150 was placed immediately with delivery set for the next day. Payment for both sets of cases was promised the next day as well. But disappointment was to follow.
"When we took the next 150 cases the next day, the lady wasn't there, but she left instructions for the products to be accepted, but the payment wasn't ready." On the third day, she said she went with another 150 cases, but decided not to unload. The proprietor, who was there at the time when Williams arrived, left. Williams said she waited for her to return, but the woman didn't. Disappointed, Williams returned to Portland. The payment for the 300 cases was not made until months later when a debt collector was assigned to recover the funds.
But that incident also helped the fledgling company. "Because of the size of the wholesale and where it was in Ocho Rios, the brand became known." Williams said she was now confident that she could push the product islandwide. A distributor was sought who introduced the Lifespan brand spring water to Kingston and western Jamaica.
Williams said she also secured another loan from the JBDC, this time it was $5 million, and that loan was disbursed before the first one was paid off "because they were satisfied with how we were servicing the loan." The new loan allowed the business to grow even further.
"But we reached a point where the demand was much more than the supply, and my sister stepped in and allowed us to use her [house] title to access a loan through the EXIM Bank." That additional fund allowed for more expansion. Efforts to get loans from commercial banks were still a struggle. "The bank would only lend us money to buy vehicles. They, however, gave us unsecured loans which we took out into increasing production."
In 2015, Williams said the company had grown so much, that what funding she needed exceeded what she was able to get. The company needed to build a new block and steel warehouse to replace the container and plyboard building it began in. Then luck would be on her side.
"We signed a deal with a company to co-pack for them and they paid us a certain amount upfront and that is what we used to build a new 9,000-square-foot warehouse." To push the product, Williams said she has had to change distributors a few time and has now settled on T Geddes Grant. Before COVID, she said her Lifespan spring water accounted for 13 per cent of the total bottled water market. Among pure spring water brands, Lifespan had 30 per cent of the marketshare.
"We had some plans which we had to put on hold because of COVID, but right now we are getting back to those plans." Taking the company public with the Junior Market listing is the aim. The market outside Jamaica is also being considered. Lifespan spring water is now sold in the Cayman Islands and "several other Caribbean islands" but the company's CEO said a stronger presence and more markets will be exploited. While she didn't reveal the production capacity, she said the company was operating at 35 per cent of that capacity. "We have a lot of room to grow."
"We are looking at diversifying our current product line, but I will not divulge what those products are," she concluded.