He Went From Wine To Water
Englewood’s Kenn Visser pretty much by accident found himself in the businesses of growing fine wines and making pure water. But in doing so, he has done a great service to a great many people.
Kenn grew up in Kirkwood, Mo., an upscale suburb of St. Louis, and put in a couple of years at the University of Missouri, but on summer break in 1972 he got a job on a dairy farm outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. He liked the area so well that he stayed on, doing whatever work he could find on farms in the area. BC is rich in fruit and wine-growing properties, and within a few years Kenn gained considerable knowledge and expertise. Enough so that in 1979 he landed a job with Compact Orchard Development Co. in Okanagan Centre, BC, managing 100 irrigated acres of high-density tree fruits and wine grapes.
In 1982 he moved up to an executive-level position as general manager of Covert Farms in Oliver, BC. He now had responsibility for 500 irrigated acres of vineyards, tree fruits, ground crops and alfalfa. He trained and supervised a staff of up to 125 employees and did crop planning and management for 20 different crops, especially wine and table grapes. He was responsible for financial planning and crop-specific cost accounting programs. He initiated and monitored the firm’s planting and pruning strategies, pest and disease control programs and direct-to-customer sales and marketing programs. “It was hard work,” he recalls. “I’d work from early March into December without a day off.” But it was worth it. He was a “man for all seasons,” now an expert in the wine-growing business and well paid for his knowledge and skills.
In 1986 he accepted an offer to join a “First Nation” (we’d call it “Native American”) enterprise that needed his expertise. “It was called Inkameep Vineyards, Ltd.” he says. “They had all this land, they hadn’t made any money on it for 17 years, and they really needed help. I signed on for seven years as general manager, to help them maximize the value of their wine-growing territory. We concentrated on one thing only: growing grapes.” His efforts paid off. The Inkameep made $250,000 in profits the first year, and their business grew. And grew. So did the region. There are now 240 wineries in the valley. While working for Inkameep, Kenn also served as a director of the British Columbia Grape Marketing Board, where he co-authored industry position papers and helped develop strategies for BC’s grape and wine industry under the Canadian government’s free trade agreements.
Once the Inkameep had their vineyards booming, Kenn moved on. A business acquaintance asked him if he’d enter a joint venture in the water purification business. “I didn’t know anything about water purification,” Kenn says, “but he said, ‘Let’s just have fun and make money.” After examining the concept and financials, Kenn decided to go for it. The company, Water Pure & Simple, was to sell water bottling franchises for a purified product, and Kenn served as director of sales and marketing. In a five-year period, WP&S established 40 franchises, developed a customer base of 25,000 accounts and sold out to US Filter/Culligan for a tidy profit.
While he was at WP&S, Kenn saw a device at a trade show in Los Angeles that could add high volumes of oxygen to water, and the concept fascinated him. “At the time there were no differentiated water choices,” he says. “You got either ‘spring water’ or ‘purified’ water.” But water with a high oxygen content would delay the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, meaning that users would have longer and better performance times and a quicker recovery from exhaustion. That was ideal for athletes, of course, but also for the normal folks doing physical labor or exercising.
Kenn put together a team that bought the patent rights to the superoxygenation technology and formed Life O2 International, a Naples, Florida-based company that licensed it to partners in some 22 countries. Along the way, Life O2 worked with Water One, Inc. of Ft. Myers, to not only produce the high-tech water purifier but also to create a delivery system for the user that was small, solar-powered and mobile, so that it would have great value for those who were not connected to an electric grid system: water-craving inhabitants of rural areas, underdeveloped countries and areas that had suffered a major natural disaster that disrupted their grid system and water-delivery capability.
In 2010 Haiti was hit with a monster, magnitude 7.0 earthquake that knocked out the island’s grid system and left large areas with no clean water source. Families were drinking muddied rainwater and worse, and were ravaged with waterborne diseases. “The disaster in Haiti was horrific,” Kenn remembers. “I went there and saw tent cities where the natives were drinking water from cisterns that was so toxic that they were sick every day. Waterborne disease is a worldwide killer, and something had to be done there.” The Water One units were an ideal solution. So Kenn got in touch with some charitable organizations he knew would be interested in placing sustainable off-the-grid purifiers in the hands of the Haitians. He found partners in Rotary International and its local affiliates, Lemon Bay Sunrise Rotary and the Englewood Rotary Club.
The effort in Haiti paid off. Many hundreds of lives were saved there, and the effort inspired Kenn to start a similar project in Cuba in partnership with the Southwest Florida Methodist Churches. The Southwest District Mission Program included the Englewood United Methodist Church as a fundraiser and supporter. Agape Flights in Venice made the initial flights to Cuba bringing purifiers to churches there. “Right now, 36 Methodist churches in Cuba have purifiers,” Kenn says. He got other projects going in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and India, and he worked with Rotary Club affiliates as far away as Chevy Chase, Md. The Salvation Army raised $145,000 for purification kits to be sent to 4,500 families in Puerto Rico. And current projects are underway in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
“Through these efforts with our local partners, Kenn observes, “we have given people the tools they can use to have sustainable off-the-grid water where it is desperately needed.” It may have been a lucky accident that Kenn Visser ended up in the water purifier business, but there are no doubt thousands of people in several countries who are mighty glad he did.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.