MAY THE BEST BRAND WIN!
Inc.|March - April 2021
Zico founder Mark Rampolla recently bought back his coconut water company after a sale that decimated the brand. Now he’s rebuilding it with a new team, but facing fierce competition from an old rival.
GRAHAM WINFREY
ONE MONDAY LAST OCTOBER, in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of Los Angeles, Mark Rampolla’s phone rang repeatedly and emails flooded his inbox. Word had leaked over the weekend that Coca-Cola was discontinuing Zico, the coconut water brand Rampolla had sold to the beverage giant in 2013. Old friends and former colleagues wanted to know how he was taking the news.

The father of two daughters, Rampolla had often joked that Zico was his son. So he felt a twinge of sadness about the brand’s foundering under Coke’s leadership. But that emotion quickly changed to excitement and hope. The 51-year-old entrepreneur reached out to Coke’s mergers and acquisitions group right away, initiating what would become weeks of secret negotiations to reacquire Zico. On New Year’s Eve, Rampolla’s phone rang once again. That night, he celebrated not just the arrival of 2021 but also another chance to compete in the coconut water business.

Rampolla now serves as chairman of the board of the newly renamed Zico Rising, representing PowerPlant Ventures, which he co-founded in 2015, and which led the acquisition from Coke. Focused on sustainability and plant-based food and beverage products, PowerPlant has invested in billion-dollar companies including Beyond Meat and Thrive Market. In addition, former Naked Juice president Thomas Hicks has signed on as CEO of Zico Rising. He’s a good fit for the job, having served as SVP of sales and operations at both Coca-Cola and Monster Energy; Hicks steered Monster’s non-energy drinks into Coke’s portfolio.

In a matter of months, Rampolla appears to have positioned Zico Rising for success. He’s still determined to build it into the leading coconut water company in the world, but more than anything, he’s just grateful for the opportunity. “It’s sort of poetic justice,” he says. “I get another shot to get a lot of this stuff right.”

Rampolla didn’t really get anything wrong the first time. Selling to Coke was his dream from the beginning, and he made it possible by building Zico into the number-two brand in the coconut water category—now a $1.2 billion market in the U.S., according to Spins, a natural-products market research firm. Sales in the category have suffered single-digit declines every year since peaking in 2016, according to market research firm Euromonitor, but the product remains a pantry staple for millions of consumers.

In 2020, however, Zico’s market share stood at just 4 percent, dwarfed by the 60 percent share of longtime competitor Vita Coco, the top coconut water brand for more than a decade.

The rivalry between Rampolla and Vita Coco co-founder and CEO Michael Kirban, 45, is worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Both founded their companies in New York City in 2004 and quickly began knocking off each other’s strategies. After Rampolla started selling Zico to yoga studios around the city, Kirban infiltrated the market guerrilla-style, taking yoga classes and passing out free samples. After Kirban succeeded in placing Vita Coco in the city’s bodegas, evangelizing the brand while zipping around town on inline skates, Rampolla went after the same stores.

“It was a battle,” Rampolla says. “I used to joke that either my kids are going to college or Kirban’s kids are going to college.”

The race to expand saw both brands reach Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, followed by China, Korea, and the U.K. Wherever one would go, the other would follow. “I remember getting off an elevator in Thailand, and there he was,” Rampolla says. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ ”

A one-time Peace Corps volunteer in Central America—where every nation is among the 85 worldwide that grow coconuts—Rampolla routinely drank coconut water while working as an executive in the El Salvador outpost of the U.S. company International Paper. He was the head of Latin American and Caribbean operations for IP’s beverage packaging division, a position he held from 2000 to 2004, after which he decided he wanted to start his own business. Rampolla had lots of ideas, but coconut water stood out. Consumers were already looking for healthier beverage options, and coconut water was a natural product with less sugar than traditional sports drinks and the benefit of abundant potassium and electrolytes. An avid cyclist, hiker, and swimmer, Rampolla was already passionate about the product and felt it could have a positive impact around the world.

Twice Is Nice

After selling his brand and watching its potential run dry, Zico founder Mark Rampolla is taking the plunge again, facing an old rival with renewed enthusiasm.

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