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Darryl Rose fights for his share of D.C.’s bottled-water market.

Paying for bottled water once seemed as ludicrous as paying for air, but times have changed to the point where rapper Mos Def can foresee a day when people will have to bathe in Evian. When what comes out of local taps tastes as if it came from the bottom of the Potomac, it’s not surprising that bottled water rang up $5.2 billion in national sales in 1999.

In the District, much of bottled water’s popularity has its origins in health problems associated with the city’s tap water in the mid-’90s. In 1995, bacteria levels for drinking water in the city surpassed federal regulations three times. A year later, the Environmental Protection Agency cited the city for dispensing germ-ridden tap water, and the city’s public health commissioner, Harvey Sloane, ordered elderly residents and those with weakened immune systems to boil water. District officials vowed to spend $10 million per year until 2017 to fix or replace miles of century-old water pipes as a response to the crisis.

That mid-’90s gush of bad local tap water inspired Darryl Rose, owner of District-based Jordan Springs Water Co., to get into the bottled-water business and take a few sips from its revenue stream.

Back in 1996, Rose surveyed the black-owned small-business terrain and decided that water was an unexplored eddy. “I wanted to do something that a lot of black people weren’t doing,” says Rose. “I did research on spring water, and [I] realized no black people were doing it.”

Rose, 34, had wanted to be a race-car driver before catching the entrepreneurial bug in his teens. But the art of the deal, he says, took him on a dangerous ride through the District’s drug underworld before he cleaned up and started selling pure spring water.

Rose found his water source one evening when he stopped in Mount Rainier, Md.’s, Glut Food Co-op. Rose bumped into a Brick House Farm Water Co. delivery man, and he asked the driver where his company obtained its water. The delivery man—who was also the water plant owner’s son—told him about the Ellicott City, Md.-based company, boasting that it had the “best water on the East Coast.”

When Rose tasted Brick House’s water, he was sold. He made his first trip to Howard County with $300, a dolly, and a bungee cord, and piled his car to the ceiling with 5-gallon jugs of water. He trekked back to the District, packaged purity in tow, to his first (and then only) customer—his godbrother, Joseph Bowman.

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For two years, as Rose held down jobs as a salesperson at the Wyndham Bristol Hotel and a delivery man for a print shop, he made the Ellicott City water runs alone. He also attended business seminars and cultivated contacts for his new company to resell the Brick House water, which he christened with the name of his 6-month-old daughter, Jordan.

Rose chose to network local businesses to find clients, rather than opting for shelf space in stores or home delivery. He also paid close attention to creating a company logo. He was looking for a simple splash of water, or maybe a spring, but the initial designs submitted to him by graphic artists depicted a nuclear explosion, a blooming mushroom, and an athlete swinging a baseball bat. Finally, he hooked up with an Ocean City, Md., tattoo artist who provided him with the perfect illustrated gush of water.

Over the past five years, by word of mouth alone, Rose has managed to obtain 200 commercial clients, including Clark Construction, the U.S. Postal Service, and an array of doctors and nonprofits. In 1998, Rose bought his first truck and hired Jordan Springs’ first employee—a delivery man. Rose remains the company’s full-time secretary, president, treasurer, and gofer.

In 2001, Rose’s bottled-water business is at a crossroads. He’s decided that he’s ready to hire a full-time office assistant and lease a new truck. His current vehicle holds up to 150 commercial-size bottles, but a new truck with bay doors on its side would hold almost 100 more.

Connecticut-based water giant Perrier Group of America—which owns the popular Deer Park, Poland Springs, and Great Bear brands—maintains a strong grip on the District’s bottled-water market. According to Perrier, the company rang up $8.2 million in retail sales alone last year in the Baltimore-Washington region. Hardly anyone in the District, outside of Rose and his clients, knows that Jordan Springs exists.

The ambitions of Jordan Springs’ owner are tempered with ambivalence. The things that Rose must do to achieve his goals are at odds with the slow, steady pace at which he has built his business.

For instance, Rose has chosen not to advertise Jordan Springs, because he fears that he would be ill-equipped to handle a sudden deluge of business.

“If 500 people were to call me…I’ve gotta go and try to scrounge up money to buy all these water coolers and all these bottles to service those accounts,” says Rose. “It scares me to think that I wouldn’t be able to provide the great service that I do now if I grew too fast. I don’t want to lose a handle on it.”

Rose argues that the strengths of Jordan Springs are its local ownership and its personalized service. “By establishing relationships with people,” he says, “[and] them giving me a chance and not letting them down….Every month, every year has gotten progressively better.”

Rose admits that undercapitalization of his company is a big concern to him. He gets paid for his water on the back end and uses his own cash up front to buy it, and he has resisted obtaining a small-business loan or a line of credit to grow Jordan Springs.

“They make you jump through so many hoops to get loans. It’s just ridiculous,” Rose complains. “I’ve seen what the [loan] criteria is, and that’s been frightening enough for me.”

Caught up in day-to-day selling, Rose also has never crafted a Jordan Springs business plan to satisfy potential lenders and serve as a blueprint for a more successful enterprise.

“I’m fending for myself, but I am in the woods,” says Rose. “What am I bringing in right now? What do I need to bring in?…If all else fails, I just know to sell more water. Just keep selling the water.”

Paul Williams, manager of counseling and training at Howard University’s Small Business Development Center, says that the predicament in which Rose finds his company is not unique among black-owned small enterprises. Most such businesses, Williams observes, don’t last more than five years, or they never grow past the levels that they reach in their first three to five years.

“A large number of African-American businesses either go out of business or do not pass Round 1…because they don’t have a plan,” observes Williams. “There’s a good market for [water]…#.But if the seller is unwilling to invest in marketing, the times won’t help.”

Rose believes that expectations of failure by black business owners spread to consumers.

“The second you don’t call somebody back,” says Rose, “or you don’t get there with their water, they’re gonna say, ‘I tried that black business. They never called me back. I’m still waiting on the water. What are they doing over there? We’re not going to deal with them.’”

Rose says that he’s even encountered black people who question his water’s authenticity. “A lot of times, people see I’m a young African-American,” says Rose, “and they find out I’m the president of the company, and they’re like, ‘Where’s the water coming from? Are you getting that from your faucet?’” They’ve also asked, he says, if Jordan Springs water came from his backyard hose.

Still, Rose admits that his own relaxed approach has crimped Jordan Springs’ growth. “There’s a side to me that’s not very aggressive,” he says. “I’m not a hard salesman.”

No matter where Jordan Springs ends up, Rose has already cleaned up.

In 1985, as a business student at Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., Rose says he began selling cocaine. Eventually, he dropped out of school and ventured deeper into the District’s rampant drug scene. He says he

wasn’t, however, a habitual user at first.

Rose pinpoints the start of his crack addiction to an evening in 1988 when two Capitol Hill clients shared some drugs with him. They’d offered before, Rose recalls, but he’d never accepted. That night, however, a friend had smoked away a $1,000 package that Rose had been supposed to sell, and he was depressed enough to accept.

Rose spent three years in the throes of crack addiction. It took six attempts, but he says he finally kicked the drug. In conversation, he repeats the date that he finally got clean—Sept. 23, 1991—like a mantra that carries more weight than the day he was born.

A decade after his recovery, Rose has also decided to move ahead with his big plans for Jordan Springs. Through a childhood friend, he met Curtis Lewis, co-owner of Mojo Highway, a black-owned beer company that has been on hiatus since its joint-venture partner was sold in 1999. He commissioned Lewis, who is also a financial consultant, to draw up a formal business plan. Rose expects the plan to be finished within a month.

Rose hopes to own a local warehouse or bottling plant one day, and he hasn’t abandoned the idea of owning the spring that serves as his source. He also wants to double his client base. But he knows a business plan and a loan are the first steps.

“I’ve established a good name for the company, and it’s just time to move forward,” says Rose. “I’m just going to have to bite the bullet.” CP