- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

When Washington-area businessman Joel Sens toured Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley several years ago in an effort to break into the fish-farming industry, he stumbled upon his next investment: a mountain spring.

“I saw this water coming out of the ground — it was so clear,” said Mr. Sens, 41. “I figured it had to be worth something.”

Mr. Sens learned that the spring, spanning 145 acres in the George Washington National Forest, was not a secret to the surrounding Augusta County residents, who for generations had been drinking its water and sharing its folklore.

The spring was owned jointly by 13 members of the Baker family, who had possessed it since 1965 but did not bottle and sell the water.

“It took me two years just to get the necessary signatures,” said Mr. Sens, who persuaded the family to sell him the spring for $1 million.

In 2003, Mr. Sens formed Seawright Holdings Inc., an Alexandria holding company for Seawright Springs bottled water. It took about a year to design an upscale label and plastic bottle, which required a special mold to make it “look like glass.”

“We thought that Seawright Springs is unique, and we wanted the look of it to resemble that quality,” Mr. Sens said.

King George II of England deeded the spring to John Seawright in 1741.

Its legends “are really kind of strange,” said John Heatwole, an author and historian who lives 15 miles from the spring in Woope, Va.

According to one tale, witches and headless bodies from a local cemetery dance around the spring on Fridays after midnight.

“It’s said that if you’re brave enough to bathe in the spring while this is going on that you’ll live forever,” Mr. Heatwole said. “And if you’re the first person to drink from the spring the next morning, you’ll have good health for the rest of your life till the day of your death.”

Water from the spring was first bottled in the late 19th century by Col. E.L. Edmundson of Staunton, Va. He built a nearby spa, which burned down within a month of its opening in 1909. The spring then changed hands several times before the Baker Seawright Corp. acquired it in 1965.

Mr. Sens, a veteran businessman who describes his job as “taking underperforming companies and creating value,” most recently helped Next Generation Media Corp., a Springfield direct-mail company, prepare for its initial public offering. Before that, he owned the Northwest Current, a D.C. newspaper.

Mr. Sens isn’t the only entrepreneur to discover the bottled-water industry. U.S. per capita consumption of bottled water increased 7.7 percent from 22.1 gallons in 2003 to 23.8 gallons in 2004, according to the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria.

“The industry has continued to grow strongly over the past 20 to 25 years,” said Stephen Kay, spokesman for the association. “There are plenty of opportunities, and companies such as this one are responding to the growth in demand.”

Mr. Sens expects his newest company to turn a profit soon.

“What makes this spring valuable is that its source is within the majority of the population on the East Coast,” he said. In addition, the spring can produce 250 million gallons of water a year.

“We think that our margins will be good. There’s not a lot of moving parts to this business: We buy caps, we buy bottles, we buy labels and we pay somebody to bottle it.”

Mr. Sens is negotiating with upscale grocers across the eastern seaboard to sell his product, which he expects to appear on store shelves within a month. Seawright Springs will compete with luxury brands such as Evian and Fiji, he said.

“We’re trying to be smart and selective,” he said. “People are tired of corporate brands. If you deliver a product where people feel like there is real value, they’ll pay for it. Hopefully that’s what will transpire here.”

Seawright Springs will use a “grass-roots” marketing approach in the Washington area and establish brand awareness by sponsoring local events, Mr. Sens said. For now, the water is being produced by a bottler in Alton, Va. Seawright Springs eventually will need to build its own bottling plant, he said.

“I don’t care about being that big,” he said. “I want to make a profit, but I want to deliver a quality product. I don’t believe in many things, but I believe in this water.”

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