Pure water in, pure water out

Small business boosts Hays Pure Water Foundation’s bottom line

TJ stacks waterBURLINGTON, Iowa — Of all the places TJ Widbin would love to visit, the back of a semi trailer stacking bottled water probably doesn’t make the list.

But today, the 26-year-old software salesman is doing his other job – delivering bottles of Hays Pure Water in his mom’s minivan. Today’s stack of 22 cases is headed for Harmony Bible Church in nearby Danville, Iowa, where Widbin attends.

For each half-liter bottle of Hays Pure Water that Widbin sells, 10 cents goes to fund the manufacture and distribution of hand-held Khlor Gen chlorine generators distributed worldwide by the nonprofit Hays Pure Water Foundation (see main story). Through organizing the annual 12:1 Run and its own coffers, Harmony is already a major sponsor of the foundation. Buying and selling the bottled water is just one more way that the church can support what the foundation does – and draw the attention of people who don’t attend church at all.

“It’s something that bridges the church with nonbelievers, non-churched people, who say, ‘OK, I don’t know what that church is all about, but they’re about saving lives and providing clean water for people, and I’m on board with that as well. I want to help them do that,’” says Matt Yaley, Harmony’s pastor of global ministries.

Bottles of Hays Pure Water wait for storage at the Ivy Bake Shoppe & Café

Bottles of Hays Pure Water wait for storage at the Ivy Bake Shoppe & Café

Business supporting mission

Widbin started the water business about eight months ago after initially being hired by foundation president John Hays to improve the organization’s website. While working on the donations page and thinking about the thousands of dollars’ worth of Khlor Gen units Hays gives away annually, Widbin began to wonder: Was there a way to make Hays’ work more sustainable?

So Widbin floated the idea of starting a business to support the foundation. Hays immediately loved the idea. So early this year, Widbin launched Hays Pure Water Corp., an S corporation, to help fund the nonprofit Hays Pure Water Foundation.

Rather than bottle water himself, Widbin contracts with co-bottler Langlade Springs Water Co. in Polar, Wis., to supply the product. But Widbin still stores and transports most of it himself.

“It’s just such a great idea that nobody else is doing but there wasn’t much way of getting it out there and making it known,” Widbin says. “So I thought if I can help him with that, that would be pretty cool.”

Making connections

So far, Widbin has been working with local retailers, notably Hy-Vee grocery stores, in and around Burlington to get the Hays name in front of more customers. The initial numbers encouraged everyone — Widbin projected sales of $500 the first month, and ended up with $3,500. Thus far he has stocked water in 25 Hy-Vee stores in a two-hour-drive radius of Burlington and hopes to do more soon.

Bottles of water on the shelf at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Burlington, Iowa

Bottles of water on the shelf at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Burlington, Iowa

“I’d really like it to expand more,” says Alex Gregory, manager of perishables at Hy-Vee’s No. 2 store in Burlington. “If I can help get it to more stores, I will.

“It’s a good cause. It’s good for me; it’s good for him. Customers like the product, and I’m selling the product.”

Along with large retail outlets like Hy-Vee, Widbin also is getting help from smaller retailers like Martha Wolf, owner of the Ivy Bake Shoppe and Café in West Burlington. Wolf, a friend of the Widbin family for many years, says she could be selling water at a much greater profit. But at the end of the day, she feels a lot better about selling Hays’ product.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says Wolf over one of her signature cinnamon rolls. “When you own a restaurant, it just opens you up to all sorts of ways of helping people.

“Hopefully it lets our customers know what we’re into the bigger picture. Our customers are really very supportive. I think people really basically want to help; they just aren’t going to go out of their way sometimes. I think seeing the water here is maybe a small way that they can help us help TJ.”

With money suddenly coming from a new direction, Hays can focus that much less on raising money and more on building connections to new communities that need clean water. Though the revenue to the foundation thus far won’t pay for the hundreds of units he’s being asked for, Hays is just glad to get some help for his ministry.

“I appreciate TJ,” Hays says. “He’s kind of picked the ball up and run with a lot of things – the website and the bottled water.”

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