‘Let’s Talk About Water:’ Former Bottled Water Chief, UVA Darden Water Expert Take Deep Dive Into Vital Resource
By Dave Hendrick
When considering whether to take the position of CEO of Nestle Waters North America, Fernando Mercé (MBA ’98) said he initially had reservations, concerned about the many controversies often associated with bottled water.
Instead, Mercé said his research allayed his fears. He accepted the role, confident in his ability to bring positive change on issues around the lifecycle of plastic bottles and water sourcing.
Participating in a virtual Leadership Unscripted discussion at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business with Professor Peter Debaere, Mercé, who left Nestle in early 2020 to take the role of CEO of the toy manufacturer Melissa & Doug, framed bottled water as not a substitute for tap water but essentially a “beverage solution for consumers that is 100 percent healthy.”
Said Mercé, “Pure, pristine water delivered directly to consumers is incredibly important and provides a vital benefit to society.”
Debaere is a water expert who has extensively studied water economics, especially in the global context. At UVA, Debaere leads the Global Water Initiative, which brings together scholars from across UVA to research, teach and give policy advice about water challenges.
Mercé said the product in a water bottle, either from an aquifer or municipal water lines, is only as good as the watershed from which it originates. Aging infrastructure and chemicals are both causes of concern for industry and government.
“In the end, water is neither created nor destroyed, it’s all part of a cycle,” said Mercé, adding that pollution in any part of the cycle could have a disastrous impact. If we manage our watersheds, and treat water as a renewable resource that can be maintained and replenished over time, its uses are infinite.
When working in a community from which the company drew water, Mercé said it was critical to pay a fair price and ensure the community understood that Nestle is a “responsible user of this renewable resource.”
The move from Nestle to Melissa & Doug may seem unrelated, but Mercé said both leverage renewable resources — Melissa & Doug specializes in wooden toys — and each is dedicated to “preserving natural resources for generations to come.”
The Leadership Unscripted series continues on 3 December with a discussion on why diversity in tech matters with Rana el Kaliouby.
Watch the full discussion with Debaere and Mercé or listen to the podcast:
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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