Dr. Willard's Water
Dr. Willard’s Water:
How one local scientist’s discovery became a lucrative, global family business.
Q&A with grandson and current CEO, John Willard III.
Tell us about Dr. Willard’s Water’s origin?
My grandfather, Dr. John Willard Sr., was a chemistand he invented a product he called CatalystActivated Water in the mid-1960’s. The productis a proprietary water additive that stimulates anumber of biological activities such as digestion,cellular absorption, antioxidant activity and severalother things. After conducting a few years of testsin conjunction with a biologist friend at Purdue, Dr.T.W. Perry, my grandfather, realized he’d inventedsomething pretty special so he began to set upa company to sell the product. He founded CAWIndustries (Catalyst Activated Water) in 1973 andwe’ve been in continuous business since. The catalysttoday is sold all over the world in just about everycapacity one can imagine. There’s money to bemade in stimulating biological functions includinga microbial soil enhancer, cosmetic ingredient,plant additive, specialty beverage and everything inbetween.
How did the company transition throughout your family over the decades?
In the early years the company was really run out ofmy grandfather’s basement where he manufacturedthe product and we often spent our Saturdayshelping to fill bottles and apply labels. In 1980the news program 60 Minutes did a story on mygrandfather and his invention and that story reallylaunched the company worldwide. Thanks to thatinterview, we were able to start bottling en masse ata manufacturing facility and my dad and uncle joinedthe business full-time. When my grandfather died in1991 my dad and uncle co-ran the company and thatrelationship lasted until my uncle died. I took over asCEO in 2011.
Were you always interested in being part of the family business?
Anyone who has been involved in a family businessknows that the one thing you can count on whenworking with family is discord within the family. Mysister and I grew up watching my dad deal with whatseemed to be a constant flow of arguments with hisdad and brother, so we were both very wary of enteringthe family business. However, I’d worked for thebusiness during summer breaks in college and spent
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a good deal of time with my grandfather discussingthe invention and, most importantly, his dreamsfor the company so I guess it’s safe to say I alwaysthought it was a possibility someday.
Were there any transitioning plans developed within your family?
There were transition plans for when my grandfatherdied but nothing really for when my dad and unclehad either passed on or retired so that transitionperiod was difficult, to say the least.
In what ways has the business expanded since its beginning?
My grandfather originally began working on theproduct as a trace mineral water derived from lignitewith a goal of using it to stimulate livestock growth.The invention of catalyst activated water wasactually a happy accident during the lignite waterdevelopment process, so our evolution is well beyondwhat my grandfather originally envisioned. Today,his invention is sold in ways he never dreamed suchas a cosmetic ingredient in Japan, a poultry growthenhancer in Egypt, a plant additive in Zambia, afertilizer ingredient in South Korea, and a beverageenhancer that people can buy at stores like WholeFoods or locally at The Market. It’s safe to say mygrandfather never envisioned this kind of multidimensionalworldwide presence.
Are there advantages to having your headquarters in the Black Hills?
More than 99% of our annual income is derivedfrom sales beyond the borders of South Dakota soin all honesty, I’ve often said that Rapid City is notthe ideal place to have our manufacturing facility.There are inherent difficulties such as transportationcosts, gaining raw materials and even labor isbecoming difficult, so these are all issues that presentchallenges unique to the Black Hills. However, thesmall state allows for intimate relationships withgovernment officials that we would definitely nothave in larger states and that’s been a tremendoushelp in our recent expansion. For example, we’vereceived a good deal of assistance, both financialand personal advice, from Jeff Haverly with theGovernor’s Office of Economic Development. Inaddition, Senator Thune’s office played an early, keyrole in helping to develop our African PlantCatalystexpansion. A small company like ours would neverhave gotten that kind of attention in a largerstate. There are also corporate and personal taxadvantages to being located in South Dakota whichdefinitely helps to offset some of the inherentdifficulties in transportation and supply.
What do you hope to see for the future of Dr. Willard’s Water?
Dr. Willard with his sons John Jr. (left) and Bill (right) in the late 1960’s
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CEO John Willard, III. meeting with African farmers about the use of his product to enhance crop growth.
My grandfather always hoped that his invention would have a lasting positive impact on mankind and that idealism colored his later years. He was
particularly interested in poverty and food security and even traveled to eastern Africa in the 1980’s to present his product as a part of the solution to famine and poverty in the region. He was ultimately unsuccessful in those efforts and the failure impacted his last years as he often expressed regret over it. When I took over as CEO, my primary goal for the company was to help achieve my grandfather’s dream so I immediately began formulating a long-term plan for doing agricultural work in developing nations that involved several research projects, partnerships with non-profits focused on agricultural development and targeted country outreach. Today, I’m happy to say that farmers in three African nations are using my grandfather’s PlantCatalyst to grow more crops and put more money in their pockets. I hope to continue building on that foundation to expand to several other African nations and around the world.
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