The letters arrive every week, says Gérard Mialonier. Landowners announcing excitedly that liquid gold is gushing out of the ground, their ground. Come see, come see!
Yet Mr Mialonier does not work in the oil industry. Instead, he is the man responsible for finding and vetting new mineral water sources for Danone, the French food multinational that bottles and sells the Evian and Volvic brands.
As such, it often falls to him to puncture the dreams of instant wealth that tend to accompany the discovery of a spring by an opportunistic member of the public.
It is easy to understand why the people who write to Danone about their backyard gushers have such high hopes. An estimated 60bn litres of mineral water were sold around the world last year, according to Canadean, a UK-based drinks market researcher.
Evian alone sold 1.6bn bottles in 120 countries in 2005 – 216 years after the Marquis de Lessert first discovered a mineral water spring in Evian-les-Bains, a small alpine town on the French side of Lake Geneva.
Moreover, global demand for mineral water has grown by about 6 per cent a year since 1998, according to Canadean, making it more important for the industry to secure new sources to slake this growing thirst.
That’s where Mr Mialonier comes in. The Danone veteran says that he yearns to discover a lucrative new mineral water source just as much as the people who write to his company: “I dream of finding a source like Evian – it’s a miracle of nature.”
He and the two geologists who form his Paris-based team aim to secure promising sites before they are picked up by other international water companies, such as Nestlé, the Swiss group that owns the Perrier and Vittel brands.
As companies such as Danone become increasingly global, that can mean trying to outwit rivals in Argentina, Mexico and other emerging markets by finding new springs or buying companies that already bottle and sell mineral water.
Yet Mr Mialonier says that high-quality sources are few and far between: “One doesn’t find the miraculous every day.” This is partly because the production of mineral water is not simply a case of finding a deposit and then sucking it dry. Unlike the oil industry, “we exploit a resource that renews itself,” he says. A company such as Danone, therefore, has to take a particularly long-term view of resource management.
A common failing is that a spring produces a strong flow but only on an intermittent basis – not much use if you want to build a factory that relies on regular output. “Some springs only respond to rain,” says René-Charles Coumes, the manager of Danone’s bottling plants in Evian. The temperature of the flow needs to be stable too in order to demonstrate that the water is only coming from one source.
One of the big management challenges of exploiting a mineral water resource concerns the need to make sure that it does not become polluted by other human activities in the area such as farming. Mr Coumes says Evian is lucky in that respect because local farmers make traditional Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie cheese; the production of both of these regionally-trademarked products is subject to tight controls.
Location is another factor determining whether a newly-found spring will be viable or not. Water is a bulky product to transport so a site cannot be too remote. The bottling plants at Evian include on-site railway depots, for example. About 70 per cent of their output is hauled away on trains, says Mr Coumes.
Even at Evian, Danone is looking for more springs that would allow it to take out a greater volume of water at peak periods of demand without endangering the longevity of the aquifer, which is replenished by water that takes 15-20 years to percolate down from the mountain heights.
Some potential new sources are in tests. If the process is managed correctly, “theoretically, there is no end” to the mineral water supply, says Mr Coumes. With the prospect of such recurring riches, it is unlikely that the flow of excitable letters to Danone’s Paris headquarters will dry up any time soon either.
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published