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Wringing out an overseas water sale.

After painstaking scrutiny, Anchorage small- business owner Mark Wilson has sealed a deal to supply Alaska water to a Japanese cosmetics firm.

The television camera spans the lush greenness as birds sing in the background. Very Zen-like. Very Japanese. Scattered hither and yon throughout the ferns and tall grasses are bottles of men's cologne. All of a sudden, the tempo increases and the music becomes dramatic. Blue-white calving glaciers fill the screen. The Japanese narrator talks of "Denali," a new line of men's toiletries. The ad's closing tag line, printed on a blue background, reads: "For Beautiful Human Life."

The Japanese trading company Toyo Menka Kaisha was looking for the most perfect water on Earth, and it was willing to spend millions of dollars to find it. The water was to be the basis for a new line of mid-priced men's toiletries that would be manufactured in Odawara, Japan, by Kanebo, that country's second-largest cosmetics firm and the fifth largest worldwide.

Eventually, Toyo Menka's exhaustive international search led the firm to Alaska's Mark Wilson and the modest Anchorage office of his Alaska Mountaintop Spirits Co. The Japanese weren't looking for just pure water. They could find that at home, says Wilson. And they weren't looking for just natural water. What they sought was perfect water. Water that was old. Water that, as their marketing campaign stresses, would not only refresh the Japanese man, but also renew his spirit.

Wilson late last year began supplying the Japanese firm with glacier water for its Denali line of shampoos, skin bracers and colognes - an entire product line based on the integrity of its water content. The water could have come from many sources and the toiletries could have been marketed under any number of names. But Wilson convinced the Japanese search team that Alaska just happened to have what it wanted, and the name Denali was selected by the Japanese cosmetics company.

"What they're after is a water that's as old as possible. A water that has not been exposed to any other chemicals, and a water that is soft," says Wilson. "It has a specific limit on mineral contents. They don't want a water that's been exposed to cyanide. They don't want a water that's been exposed to iron. They want a water that came from the sky, that landed with no minerals in it, that hasn't been exposed to minerals or manmade chemicals."

Wilson, who also is a principal in Anchorage-based Wetco Inc., has been trading with the Japanese since he began selling them glacier water and ice back in 1987. Convincing Japanese cosmetics executives charged with finding the Earth's perfect water that he could supply it was not easy. And it wasn't quick or inexpensive. Wilson spent several months and thousands of dollars meeting with Japanese executives.

Water samples from Eklutna Lake, Hatcher Pass, various Alaska wells and Sheep Mountain northeast of Anchorage were sent and tested. Wilson made trips to Tokyo and participated in nine meetings before Japanese executives decided he and his small company were even worthy of further consideration. He hosted visiting teams of executives, taking them to Eklutna Lake and to the water treatment plant there, the source of the water for other products Wilson manufactures.

A contest was held and Wilson became just one of several other international competitors. According to an article in a Japanese newspaper, more than 30 sites worldwide were tested for the quality of their water. Local samples were tested here, in Japan, and at a third, independent lab. The Japanese felt the water, smelled it, tasted it.

"They even took a bath in it," ways Wilson of the water from Eklutna Glacier. "They washed with it. They smelled it. They ran analytical tests on it. They investigated the site. They investigated us. They based the product on integrity first, and what they wanted was a water that came from a specific source with these qualities."

Wilson says negotiations with both the trading company and the cosmetics manufacturer pinned down everything from the proper pH for the water to how often he would visit Japan. "They're adamant. They had everything checked off," he adds.

Wilson is sending the Japanese glacier water pumped from the middle of Eklutna Lake just north of Anchorage. The water goes through an initial filtering at the nearby water treatment plant to remove sand and other debris.

Before anything is added to it - including fluoride and other additives the water is trucked to Alaska Mountaintop Spirits in stainless steel totes. It's processed, and sample tests are run. If tests from three different labs are conclusive, the water is then shipped in specially built, virgin plastic drums to Japan.

In December alone, Wilson shipped 140 tons of glacier water to Japan. Kanebo, which has more than 3,000 employees working on the Denali line, has even gone to the expense of having water air-freighted to Japan so production schedules could be met.

While the negotiations may have seemed tedious at times - especially to those unfamiliar with Japanese business practices - that's simply the Japanese way, say Wilson and Douglas Barry, deputy director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Center for International Business. "That's the way they do business. Personal relations are very important," says Barry. "The desire of the Japanese is to be absolutely sure that they're getting what they want."

Barry says he's impressed by Wilson's continued success in marketing to the Japanese (in the last four years he's sold them glacier water, glacier ice and Alaska-made vodka). Barry adds, "He's done his homework. He's constantly looking for those types of opportunities. We're using what he is learning over there to teach others."

Among other things, Wilson has learned that the Japanese like what little they know about Alaska and that they have the disposable income necessary to buy unique, premium-quality novelties. By marrying the mystique of Alaska to what are perceived to be top-of-the-line boutique items, Wilson has managed to penetrate what some businesses often find to be a very difficult Japanese market.

In addition to supplying water for toiletries, Alaska Mountaintop Spirits also is launching a campaign to sell bottled Glacier Gold drinking water to the Japanese. In what Wilson sees as a marketing coup, he negotiated with the Japanese to have samples of the bottled water delivered to 83,000 Japanese retailers in a single week as part of a Denali toiletries promotion.

Retail buyers and company owners sampled the water as they tested the shampoos and colognes. If the new line of toiletries is successful, chances are good that Glacier Gold premium bottled water - riding on Denali's coattails - also will be successful.

Barry says because the Japanese have a tremendous amount of disposable income, the nation's consumers have an unquenched appetite for such novelties as bottled glacier water. The Japanese also have an affinity for nature and are fascinated by foreigners and anything foreign, says Barry. Both those characteristics should bode well for Denali toiletries and for Glacier Gold drinking water.

According to a recent article in the Japanese press, nature and the environment are important concepts for a Japanese company to stress if it hopes to do business into the next century. The same article goes on to say that in the past, Japanese advertising of men's toiletries has focused on a more manly, macho image. Sales have declined, however, and the newest advertising strategy is to shift to more nature-oriented products. In closing, the article quotes a Kanebo executive as saying he was very impressed not only with Alaska's Eklutna Glacier, but also with "the state environmental policy to protect the water from pollution."

So just how much is Alaska Mountaintop Spirits' contract with Kanebo worth? "That's what everybody wants to know," says a sheepish Wilson. Although he'll divulge that, depending on the success of the product, the contract is for five to seven years, he won't talk dollars.

"Last time I showed somebody the dollar figures, suddenly I have 8 to 10 new competitors in glacier ice," says Wilson. Already, a competitor in the glacier water business has talked of approaching Kanebo with a proposal to replace Alaska Mountaintop Spirits as the main supplier of glacier water, he notes. Kanebo told Wilson not to worry, that his contract is secure.

There's lots of competition out there all the time," says Wilson. "There's also a lot of good ideas out there."

ONE PRO'S INTERNATIONAL TRADE POINTERS

In the last four years, experience and sheer determination have taught Anchorage businessman Mark Wilson a lot about marketing to the Japanese. His first sale was glacier water and, quite by accident, glacier ice, then Alaska-made vodka, and now glacier water for a line of men's toiletries. Premium bottled glacier water is next.

Wilson gives a lot of credit for his success to both state and federal offices charged with alerting U.S. companies to international trade opportunities and, conversely, with educating international firms to the vast potential Alaska may hold for them. Among those he keeps in touch with are the U.S. Department of Commerce, the District Export Council, the Alaska Center for International Business and the state Office of International Trade.

These offices are bringing attention to the state, sending the message that Alaska is rich in natural resources and also offers a large labor pool.

The groups that are involved with stimulating international trade here have done, I think, a real good job of bringing attention to the state, and that's really about the most they can do," says Wilson. "They can make introductions and they can bring attention to the state so that businesses Outside, international businesses or even large domestic Lower 48 businesses will at least know that there are business opportunities to be had. If they can just do that, I'm happy."

Keeping in touch with international trade offices paid off for Wilson and his Alaska Mountaintop Spirits when Japanese cosmetics manufacturers were looking for water. For Alaska companies wishing to do business with the Japanese, Wilson has a few suggestions:

* Decide on a focus. Although his business ventures may seem varied, Wilson says he pretty much follows a basic plan, namely, putting things in bottles.

* Use international trade offices as much as possible, They offer a wealth of information and can help save businesses from making the same mistakes others have made. In a way, says Wilson, he considers those offices part of his employee base.

* Adopt a borderless frame of mind. Access to Japan is easy, according to Wilson, who adds that it's just as easy for him to fly to Tokyo for $800 as it is to get to Southern California.

* Target industries that have very few direct or indirect trade barriers. There's not much red tape in the water business, for example.

* Be somewhat selective in which companies you decide to do business with. Wilson says, if he made a mistake early on, it probably was in scrambling after every business crumb that fell at his feet. He points out that for $75 the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Office will run a check on prospective international trade partners. The service is well worth the fee and can potentially save Alaska businesses time, money and frustration.

* Don't give up. There are no immediate "yeses" when it comes to international trade, but there are also numerous possibilities. "There's a lot of opportunity," says Wilson. "A tremendous amount of opportunity."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on international trade; Special Section: Small Business; Alaska Mountaintop Spirits Co. sells glacier water to a Japanese cosmetics company
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:1906
Previous Article:Interior Alaska Fish Processors.
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