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Coconuts, water mix for energy, success!

Coconuts, water mix for energy, success!

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So how does a guy from Baldwin find his fortune in coconut water? Shoot, how does anyone find a fortune in coconut water?

"It's a combination of timing, luck, stupidity and refusal to fail," says Mark Rampolla.

His southern California company, Zico, claims retail sales of well over $100 million a year. Its little blue boxes started selling seven years ago in Manhattan yoga studios but now can be found everywhere from Target to Giant Eagle. It's hard to believe this all started with a Central American hangover.

That may be stretching things, but only a bit. Mr. Rampolla, a 1984 graduate of Baldwin-Whitehall High School, first saw coconut water sold on the beaches of Costa Rica while serving in the Peace Corps there. It beat drinking the hair of the dog after a long night of partying, and it was a good post-exercise tonic, too.

Mr. Rampolla, with a business degree from Marquette University, was helping the locals, many of them single mothers, launch small businesses that might appeal to tourists flocking to Costa Rica's rainforest. When his hitch was up, he got a master's in business administration from Duke and met his wife, Maura.

He landed a job in business development with International Paper's beverage packaging division and traveled through Latin America, Asia and Europe showing people how great juice in cardboard cartons can be.

Because he and his wife, who had done volunteer work in Nicaragua, wanted to get back to Latin America, he volunteered to run the company's packaging plant in El Salvador.

"There are not a lot of people fighting to move to El Salvador," he said, but he grew the business and wound up running the entire Latin American division.

By then, he and his wife had two daughters. Not wanting to be a corporate guy all his life, he kept bringing new business ideas home. His wife kept telling him one was dumber than the next until he suggested coconut water.

"We always drank it and loved it," he said, and he had just "enough knowledge to be dumb enough to think I could pull this off."

He got a company in northern Brazil to make coconut water to his specifications. He coined the name Zico -- pronounced ZEE-ko -- after first making sure it wasn't offensive in any of the world's major languages. Then he took it to New York figuring, in a flip on the old song lyrics, that if Zico couldn't make it there it couldn't make it anywhere.

Selling out of his van, he found a ready market in those uber-trendy yoga studios where folks bend themselves 26 ways from Sunday in 100-degree heat.

"This was an audience that sweats like hell," he said.

They proved a natural for "Nature's Sports Drink" touting "five essential electrolytes" that have been a source of "wellness, beauty and hydration" for more than 4,000 years.

Now Zico is based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and is manufactured in Brazil, Thailand and Joplin, Mo. Its website is punctuated with endorsements from impossibly fit humans such as Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett and workout model Amanda Russell, and the Coca-Cola Co. bought a 20 percent share of Zico two years ago for a reported $15 million.

Mr. Rampolla owns "significantly less than half" of Zico but still controls it. He's made a fortune "but if all I cared about was the high probability of money, I'd have stayed on the corporate path." He likes that Zico provides a healthier choice for children's lunch boxes and that coconut water can be an important export for developing nations. Plus, he says, he's still having fun.

OK. Fine. But I can't leave this without conceding a little envy.

I, too, spent time in Costa Rica. I visited a friend in the Peace Corps there in 1986. I spent two weeks in Central America and can promise you I was hung over at least once. I'm sure I had coconut sprinkled on my rice and beans. But did I think of packaging coconut water?


My friend, meanwhile, went into the wind power business some years after coming home and made a fortune. He has a big house in Texas. The moral, kids, is that if you want to make real money, join the Peace Corps.

Written by: Brian O'Neill

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