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Small Business Snapshot: Aim High

Family’s hard work and marketing smarts build Highbridge Springs Water

By Mark Green

Highbridge Springs Water, a thriving small business serving limestone-filtered spring water, is proof of the value of creative thinking.

Bill Griffin bought an inactive underground rock quarry nearly 50 years ago with a vision of applying his warehousing experience to turn it into a specialized storage facility. But the engineer he hired to address “humidity” said Griffin first needed to get rid of the water gushing from a hole in the 30-foot ceiling.

Located in Jessamine County near a popular rail span across the Kentucky River, Highbridge Springs Water began business in 1982, and Griffin gave responsibilities to his five daughters. Family members did literally everything initially, including convincing buyers and customers that bottled water was even a product.

However, the Griffins had deep experience in sales and marketing. They handed out their product at 5Ks and 10Ks, air shows, festivals and food shows. It took six years to turn a profit.

Today there are national brands whose volume operations allow them to sell at a lower price, but Highbridge Springs Water competes on quality, taste, convenience and customer service. It rents water coolers that hold its 3- and 5-gallon bottles.

The operation now employs a staff of 35 and bottles 20,000 gallons a day in 12-ounce, 16.9-ounce, 1 gallon and 2.5-gallon recyclable containers. The company delivers to thousands of customers in Kentucky, and grocers in eight states now sell Highbridge Springs.

In August, President Linda Griffin accepted Commerce Lexington’s 2022 Small Business of the Year Award.

The company remains owned by the Griffin family and is one of the oldest women-owned companies in Kentucky.

TLR: What one thing do you wish you had known prior to starting Highbridge Springs?
HS: That the company would be in operation 40 years later; we would have built some things differently. Otherwise, it is good we didn’t know the amount of work and personal time that would be required to get us to the 40-year mark.

TLR: What has been your biggest challenge as a company and how did you overcome it?
HS: The first was convincing customers that we had a viable product worth buying. Many, many buyers laughed at the idea of buying water and thought it would not sell in grocery stores. We gave many introductory offers that helped get the product into the stores or rented coolers but it did not help the bottom line. Ramping up production while maintaining quality and regulatory compliance is always a challenge. The recession that began in 2008 and the recent pandemic may be the biggest challenges. Accounts disappeared overnight, with no idea of when or if they would come back. In the recent pandemic, our top priority was to get our product to remaining customers while keeping everyone safe.

TLR: What advice would you give to others who are thinking of opening a business?
HS: Be ready for sacrifice and persistence. For the first few years, family members did everything—production, sales, deliveries, billing, etc. They worked for no pay. Gradually, outside employees came on board but the business didn’t turn a profit until the sixth year of operation. Also, nobody builds a business on their own. Make your customers your friends. Support your community and it will support you back. Finally, have good relationships with a bank you can deal with for the long term.

TLR: Is your company involved in the community?
HS: Highbridge Springs has been an active community supporter since its founding 40 years ago. The company was one of the first participants in what later became the state Department of Agriculture’s Kentucky Proud program for local Kentucky products. Highbridge Springs has supported numerous community and arts organizations in Central Kentucky either as financial sponsors or in-kind contributors, including the Catholic Action Center, the Junior League Horse Show, Bluegrass Tomorrow, golf outings for a variety of causes, the Lexington Humane Society, the Bluegrass State Games, the Troubadour Concert Series, and the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.

Because our product is a staple of life, the company has helped provide relief for dozens of natural disasters, from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the central Kentucky ice storms to the recent tornados in Western Kentucky and floods in Eastern Kentucky. Highbridge staff worked extended hours for two weeks following the devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky, and the company provided thousands of gallons of drinking water to those in need.

TLR: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
HS: Dealing with a product that is essential to life, Highbridge takes pride in going the extra mile when needed. We have loaded trucks throughout the night, bottled seven days a week for four months during the drought of 1988, and shipped truckloads in times of natural disasters. That is all possible because of the dedicated employees we have been fortunate to have throughout the years and have today. Several have been with us over 20 years and we value and appreciate them all.