POLAND — In the past several years there have been more than a dozen legislative proposals to limit development or tax Poland Spring's bottled water, said an executive who oversees the water beverage business in North America for Nestle, which owns Poland Spring.
When Nestle bought Poland Spring in 1980 it was bankrupt with 28 employees. “This place was falling down,” said Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America. “It was hard for me to imagine when we bought this (that) I would be standing here today leading a $4 billion company with 7,500 employees.”
In addition to being the largest bottled water company in America, Nestle Waters North America is now the third largest non-alcoholic beverage company by volume in the country. Poland Spring is only one of its bottled water companies, but it makes up one-fourth of those sales.
After investing millions, Poland Spring does more today to promote Maine than even L.L. Bean, Jeffery said.
“It's an iconic brand," he said. "I'm in New York City all the time. You cannot walk 100 yards in Manhattan without falling over a bottle of Poland Spring on some cart on every single street.” That means billions of interactions with that bottle every day. "Everybody knows it comes from Maine.”
Despite a tough year in 2009 when sales declined, water sales will continue to grow, he predicted.
But Maine isn't an easy state in which to do business, he said.
“We've had 16 pieces of legislation from legislators to tax us or limit our development as a company,” Jeffery said. That has meant spending a lot of money to keep those proposals from being approved.
Poland Spring offers a healthy product and operates in a sustainable way, Jeffery said. “We don't take more than Mother Nature gives us.” Not being sustainable would not be logical, Jeffery said, because it would put them out of business. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection monitors how much water can be taken to protect underground water and the life that depends on it, said Andy Fisk who heads DEP's water bureau.
Poland Spring employs 800 people in the state, offering some of the best-paying jobs in Maine, Jeffery said. With so many legislative bills aimed at the company, “something's upside down here,” Jeffery said during a speech Thursday honoring “Natural Leader” award-winner Ferry Beach Ecology School of Saco.
“We love being in business here, but sometimes it's hard," he said. Sixteen pieces of legislation is an awful lot to deal with.”
He asked the audience of nonprofit organization officials, to which Poland Spring donates nearly $1 million a year, to put in a good word to legislators. The audience laughed.
Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, was not amused when reached by phone Thursday.
One of those 16 bills was his. He proposed that Poland Spring be taxed 1 cent per gallon, which works out to about one-eighth of a cent for an individual bottle of water, he said. Half of that tax revenue would be used for general state purposes, 25 percent to protect Maine water quality and 25 percent would go to the community where the water is extracted.
That bill, like the others, did not pass.
Hinck said he did not object to the business, calling Poland Spring a “reasonable employer.” He didn't object to how Nestle runs the business. He's comfortable that the industry is not taking too much water from Maine.
“Where I differ with Nestle is their hyperbole over the harm that would be caused by such a small tax,” Hinck said. Maine taxpayers invest a lot to protect natural resources, including water.
Poland Spring water “is viewed as a good brand because Maine takes efforts at environmental protection," Hinck said. "The work we do to protect Maine generally benefits products, particularly this one, that market purity. There's nothing wrong with the state of Maine receiving a small return on the sale of products like pure water, particularly when some of the money could go to protect the resource.”
He doubted one-eighth of a cent per bottle would harm Poland Spring sales. “People buy Poland Spring because they buy into the idea it comes from a pure source,” he said.
During the State House debates, “no matter how many times Poland Spring hammered on the horror of such a tax, they never could explain how that small addition would affect anything.”
Hinck said he may re-introduce his bill.