Around the Water Cooler With Nestle Waters Chairman

Want to boost employee collaboration? Kim Jeffery says you just have to install a water cooler.

Want to boost employee collaboration? Kim Jeffery says you just have to install a water cooler

If there's one man who understands water coolers, it's Kim Jeffery.

The 64-year-old Greenwich, Conn. resident started in the water bottle business 35 years ago, when some people thought it was a funny idea for a company to sell water in a plastic bottle even though consumers could just pour it from the sink for free. But the doubters are no longer laughing.

"We didn't know it was going to, but the company got big," Jeffery says.

In 1978, Jeffery joined Great Waters of France, Inc., which distributed Perrier water across the United States. As Jeffery floated his way up to the top spot as CEO, the company swelled in size – acquiring the brands Poland Spring, Arrowhead and Zephyrhills, and changing its name to the Perrier Group of America. Seeing an opportunity, Nestle bought the company in 1992 and renamed it Nestle Waters North America.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Panera's CEO.]

Nestle asked Jeffery to stay and run what became the third largest non-alcoholic beverage company in the country. As president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America, Jeffery was responsible for 8,000 employees operating 30 manufacturing sites. After 20 years at the helm, he stepped down in February and took on a chairman position.

U.S. News caught up with Jeffery to find out what companies can do to be more environmentally friendly and why it's vital for offices to have an ample supply of water coolers. His responses have been edited.

This series is called "Around the Water Cooler," so I have to ask, do you think every office needs a water cooler?

Well, what could you be doing in an office that's more healthy than sitting around a water cooler drinking a glass of water? [laughs]

True! On a more serious note though, how important is it for offices to have a gathering space or break room for employees?

That's a great question you just asked me because we just rebuilt our corporate headquarters and moved to a new location after 30 years in a place that we kind of grew up in. We rebuilt it as a completely open architecture – it's LEED Gold certification I should say. On each of the four floors of the building, we have a town hall in the center that people have to come to to use the washroom, or to get a coffee or a bottle of water. Oftentimes, I'll walk up the stairs from the first floor, and on each one of the town hall floors people will actually be meeting there as opposed to a conference room.

I think open space where people can gather and meet and collaborate with one another, and get to know each other on a deeper level, is critical to a successful company culture.

And if there's a water cooler there then all the better, right?

Yeah. [laughs] We've got coolers full of water on every floor.

Nestle Waters owns several brands, including Ice Mountain, Deer Park and Ozarka. For executives in charge of multiple brands, do you have any advice for keeping track of each one?

In our case, four of our six brands are more than 100 years old with specific identities and regions that they have come from. It's important to know where it all began, why it resonated with consumers 100 years ago and how do you respect that going into the future. You've got to have a road map for your branding that really deals with the original relevance of the brand, and then you have to be true to some basic principles regarding the brand identity, the character of the brand and what's important for it in order to be able to still resonate with consumers.

Sometimes brands lose their way. You'll have 10 brand managers over a 25-year period, and at the end of 25 years, you don't know where that brand even began because they didn't have a road map for what the really important characteristics of that brand are to protect.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Harley-Davidson's CEO.]

Nestle Waters has tried to reduce its carbon footprint by producing bottles with less plastic. What are some simple things business owners can do to be more environmentally friendly?