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ENTREPRENEUR JOHN VAN DYKE TALKS ABOUT THE WATER BUSINESS
Using a relatively simple technology, Van Dyke provides people
in fourteen countries with clean drinking water for only pennies
a gallon. The necessary equipment is often no bigger than a desktop,
and clients are not charged for machinery or maintenancethey
simply pay for the water.
The water businessand running a start-up companyare new to Van
Dyke, 69, who ran a group of family-owned banks in Sioux City,
Iowa, for twenty years. After the banks were sold to Norwest in
1988, he moved to the Bay area, met up with a friend working with
water purification, and launched Dakota Water Systems in 1989.
Dakotas approach of charging clients only for the water used
came from a sense that a narrow focus would lead to a more effective,
We want to do one thing and do it well, explained Van Dyke,
who serves as president of Dakota. We realized that we could
make more money, and do a better job, by selling water as a utility
rather than selling equipment.
The San Mateo, California-based company must be on the right track.
In the nine years since its inception, Dakota has signed on 35
clients in 14 countries, usually in areas where the water is polluted,
brackish, or salty. Clients range from governments to resorts,
hospitals, and industrial and bottling companies. Most of the
initial work is completed at the company headquarters, but a staff
of fifty around the world provide on-site maintenance and support.
Dakotas systems purify the clients water through chemical treatment
and reverse osmosis. Intense pressure is used to force the fresh
water through a thin, semipermeable membrane. The potable water
flows through the membrane; minerals and impurities are trapped
on the other side.
The equipment is installed on the clients property and can produce
between ten thousand and one million gallons a day, depending
on its size. The largest would fit in a forty-foot container,
and the smallest would fit on a desktop. The cost of equipment
purchase, installation, and maintenance is figured into the cost
per gallon paid by each client.
One of Dakotas initial contracts was providing water to Culebra,
an island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. When the contract
began in 1989, Dakota provided 100,000 gallons a day to the island;
the daily output in now more than 200,000 gallons. The Culebra
plant has an impressive record; the plant resumed operations within
24 hours of Hurricane Marilyns appearance in 1996, and the water
quality is consistently within World Health Organization standards.
Buoyed by their Culebra experience, Van Dyke and company began
to expand, and they now have a booming global business with plants
in China, Thailand, West Africa, Antigua, St. Martin, and other
The most growth has definitely been in the Far East, he says.
In China, theres almost more business than we can do. We dont
Although running Dakota is completely different than running
banks, Van Dyke loves the pace and challenge of guiding a new
venture. Ive always been an entrepreneur at heart, he says,
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of starting a business from
scratch as opposed to running a business that is matured and developed.
In addition to the challenges of keeping a new business afloat,
Van Dyke enjoys making some impact on world water problems. Hes
speaking in May at a conference on small water systems sponsored
by the World Health Organization and World Bank, and hopes it
will open discussions on water issues.
Its a gigantic problem, he says, and there is a lot of talking about it in macro ways, but not a lot in the way of solutions. And thats a good place to start.
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