Bart VanStekelenburg owns Juturna, a WaterCare dealership in Greensboro, Georgia. However, the Southeastern United States is not where he got his start in water treatment. That opportunity presented itself nearly a decade ago, and thousands of miles away, in Central America.
Bart was born in Holland and his family moved to the U.S. when he was young. His father’s job in food distribution took them all over the country.
“Given that I moved so often growing up, I think it gave me more of a sense of adventure to go and try something new,” he says. An adventure in international entrepreneurship is exactly what would come Bart’s way at a young age.
Bringing Better Water to Costa Rica
After graduating with a business degree from Cornell University, where he also studied bioengineering, Bart took a job in finance with a California company. They sent him to Costa Rica, which is where he was working when the Great Recession hit, negatively impacting the global economy.
Work in finance slowed down, and Bart found himself with extra time on his hands. That’s when he started an import business, selling electronics to the Costa Rican hospitality industry.
“As part of that conversation, people started asking about water quality,” Bart recalls. “So, we started getting into selling related equipment.”
It wasn’t long before water treatment and filtration grew to become the most lucrative part of the operation. Bart spun it off into its own business, starting Juturna in the Costa Rican capital city of San Jose. The name Juturna is inspired by the goddess of fountains, wells, and springs from Roman mythology.
Juturna made its mark by leasing bottle-free water coolers with ultrafiltration systems to local businesses such as banks, pharmacies, and call centers. The company also provides and installs water softeners, filtration solutions, and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection systems for both commercial and residential applications.
Bart says it was the right business model to choose for the time and place, resulting in what he calls a windfall of new business.
“When everything was going downhill during the financial crisis, a lot of the companies operating throughout Central America and South America were relocating and centralizing their operations to Costa Rica in order to cut costs,” he explains. “So, that allowed us to grow during a time when other people were struggling.”
Today, Juturna is the largest water filtration company in Costa Rica, which Bart says makes it the largest such business in all of Central America. Much of that growth originally came from improving water quality for people from other countries. However, that has changed over the years. Bart estimates that 60 to 65 percent of Juturna’s current business is for the people of Cost Rica.
“There wasn’t really a market with the Costa Ricans for water filtration,” Bart says. “Over the years, we built a need for that.”
Juturna developed a demand for better quality water by educating consumers and showing people what good, clean water is like.
“Every bank or pharmacy you walk into, you’ll see our water coolers. People try it and they realize that there’s something better than the water that comes out of their tap. They start to taste and see the difference.”
Bart explains that while the source water in Costa Rica is fairly good quality, most homes and businesses get water from storage tanks, which can be breeding grounds for bacteria like E. coli.
“People who switch to drinking purified water notice real effects on their lifestyle, everything from health to taste. We brought awareness to what better water can do for you.”
Yet another way Juturna is educating people in Costa Rica is through testing water quality. They worked directly with Mike Hansen of Water-Right’s Clean Water Testing. Mike helped Juturna set up its own certified laboratory in San Jose.
“We even do consulting for government water systems,” Bart says. “People are always surprised when they get test results and see what’s actually in their water.”
Opportunity Awaits Back in the States
Juturna’s U.S. operations came about because of what Bart describes as a “logistical nightmare.” The problem involved shipping water softener salt to Costa Rica.
“Salt is high weight and low value. So, it’s not really a fun product to ship,” he says. “When you load a 40-foot container with salt, you start getting close to weight limits before you even have half the container filled up.”
Juturna solved this issue by opening a warehouse in Greensboro, Georgia where it receives weekly shipments of salt. Shipping containers are “floor loaded” with the salt, and higher cost products, such as water softener components and UV systems, are placed on top to raise the overall value of the merchandise in the container.
While this solved Juturna’s logistics problem, it also created another entrepreneurial itch for Bart. He realized that since he already had a warehouse in Greensboro, there might as well be a dealership, too. Bart called up Ned Van Allan, a college friend who’d worked with him in Costa Rica ,to gauge his interest in getting involved. Ned promptly quit his job and moved back to Georgia to become an integral part of the business.
One of the first decisions made was to become a WaterCare dealer. While Juturna has always worked with Water-Right, this was a switch from the way things run in Costa Rica.
“We assemble our own equipment and have our own brand down in Costa Rica,” Bart explains. “We thought about doing that in Greensboro. But, after discussing the benefits of the WaterCare line and their dealer network, we decided to change directions.”
That was only about one year ago, and Juturna is already getting plenty of recognition. The Greene County Chamber of Commerce recently honored the dealership with the title of Small Business of the Year. There are also plans in the works to expand the U.S. operation to nearby Athens, which is home to the University of Georgia.
“That’s really a test for us to find out how well can we function on city water in a more realistic market in the sense of what you’ll find throughout the United States,” Bart says.
While the Costa Rica side of Juturna is moving along smoothly, Bart says he wants to focus on growing in the U.S., and he’s making no small plans.
“I don’t want to be a one shop location. I want to try and breathe some new life into water filtration in the U.S. as we know it. There are a lot of smaller dealerships, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But, I want to try to bring a certain level of service on a larger scale and really change the position that we have in the market. A lot of the WaterCare dealers are moving in this direction, and I like what I see there.”
Bart seems to be the kind of person who knows how to spot a good business opportunity. He had the chance to return to a job in the finance world, but something changed his mind.
“At one point, my old employer asked me to come back to California and work full time,” he remembers. “I had actually agreed to do that, went back and bought a car and rented a place.”
However, when Bart returned to Costa Rica to wrap things up, he asked himself, “Why would I do this? I can always get back into finance, this is my opportunity to try something on my own.”
Opportunity knocked. Bart VanStekelenburg answered. Today, Costa Rica is a better place thanks to his business, and the water filtration industry in the U.S. is next on his radar.