Recognition for boss’s aim to quench Africa’s thirst for water

James Cain, managing director at Harrogate Water.
James Cain, managing director at Harrogate Water.

When James Cain received a letter from the Foreign Office, he didn’t know what to expect. Adding to the anxiety was the fact that the envelope said it could only be opened by him.

But when the managing director of Harrogate Water got home he found that he would soon have three additional letters attached to his name. He was about to receive an OBE.

Mr Cain and his wife Nicky, who is marketing manager at Harrogate Water, were left stunned.

Mr Cain said:“The envelope sat on our dinner table that night and we literally didn’t speak about it because we couldn’t quite believe it.

“It gave us a Ready Brek glow. We were really just humbled by the fact that we’ve been recognised at the highest level for our achievements.”

He added: “It still hasn’t sunk in and I feel massively honoured. It feels selfish to be awarded to me when I know it’s such a team effort and it’s a tribute to each and every one of our colleagues at Harrogate, our customers, our suppliers and everybody that’s believed in us and the products.”

The OBE is in recognition of the charitable work Harrogate Water has done over the past eight years, helping to bring water to parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2007 Harrogate Water launched Thirsty Planet. From every bottle sold, a fixed donation is made to the water charity Pump Aid.

Pump Aid has raised around £15m, of which Thirsty Planet has contributed £1.8m, making Harrogate Water one of the largest contributors to the charity.

While Thirsty Planet has raised much needed funds for sub-Saharan Africa, the brand still has much more to offer, says Mr Cain.

He said: “The exciting thing for me, and we haven’t done it yet, is Thirsty Planet is a generic name and we think it’s got scalability beyond Harrogate.

“At the moment Thirsty Planet is packed in Harrogate but the ambition for me is to take it further afield.

“We could pack spring water from a location in America, call it Thirsty Planet and put the same model in place. We’ve got a business that then, globally, could support resolving water shortage issues in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Thirsty Planet though struggled through the recession. Mr Cain said: “Dare I say through the credit crunch that brand struggled, where in many ways charity begins at home and it was very difficult to persuade people.

“I think the whole charity sector suffered through the credit crunch, but we traded through, we stuck by them and to this day we are still supplying all of our money to Pump Aid and the model has been robust to come through all of that.”

The heritage of Harrogate Water can be traced back to 1571 when the first mineral well was discovered by Sir William Slingsby.

It led to people flocking to Harrogate for the water, with many believing it to have medicinal benefits.

In the mid-90s Harrogate Borough Council wanted to put Harrogate spring water back on the map. The council went out to tender and Mr Cain’s father, Tony Cain, was successful in that process. Harrogate Water’s facility was built and went live in 2002.

“That’s when we brought the heritage back with Harrogate spring water,” said James.

Prior to Harrogate Water, his father was a successful businessman who ran a PET plastic packaging firm in Leeds.

Mr Cain said: “He sold that in 1999 and essentially retired. He then was given the opportunity of investing in the Harrogate spring water business. Which is what he did.”

Mr Cain’s own involvement with Harrogate Water didn’t begin until 2006.

“Having left university I joined the graduate scheme for Asda in 1996. I guess learning never stops and it was an opportunity to continue my education while getting on the career ladder. I spent ten years with Asda and in that time had an amazing journey,” said Mr Cain.

One of his defining moments at Asda was acting as PA to the then chief executive Paul Mason.

He said: “Paul was fantastic to me. He said to me on taking the role, you will come to every single meeting with me. I won’t hold you back from getting involved in whatever you want to get involved in and you’ll get a helicopter view of the business.

“The majority of my time was within logistics and to this day really does remain my forte. Understanding logistics has been integral to what I have done at Harrogate since I’ve been here.”

When he eventually left Asda, after having had enough of the travelling, he decided to help his father, chairman of Harrogate Water, run the family business. But rather than assuming the role of managing director from day one Mr Cain took up an operations role.

“I wasn’t blowing in as MD on day one. I commenced my journey at grass roots and got full appreciation of what the business was all about,” he said.

The move proved to be life-changing for Mr Cain, as it was here that he met his wife Nicky.

Harrogate Water today employs 52 people and has a turnover just over £10m. Last year the company made an investment in the region of £8m on extra space and state-of-the-art machinery.

Harrogate Water has found a lot of popularity in Russia, with even Vladimir Putin pictured drinking the bottled water.

The amount of trade that they have in Russia surprised Mr Cain.

But after working with local historian Malcolm Neesam, they realised that Russians had always held a great affinity with Harrogate’s water.

Mr Cain said: “He informs us that Russian royalty used to come to the town of Harrogate to take the waters and it seems fitting that today Harrogate Water is served in Moscow.

“In some of the most premium hotels, restaurants and airports, perhaps in respect of Russian royalty once used to visiting the town of Harrogate.”

James Cain factfile

Date of birth: 31.12.73

Lives: Harrogate

First job: Saturday job working in Argos

Favourite film: Smokey and the Bandit

Favourite song: Candy by Paolo Nutini

Favourite holiday destination: Majorca

Last book read: Very British Problems by Rob Temple

Most proud of: Life changing results in sub-Saharan Africa

Car driven: Audi