Autaugaville water bottler says success flows naturally
Story and photos by Jim Plott
Siri, the Apple virtual assistant, might not always be good to its word, but Marquis Forge certainly is.
Forge vowed during his valedictorian speech at the Autaugaville High School graduation in 1995 to one day do something to benefit his hometown.
“I made a promise to that graduation audience that I would not forget where I came from … that I would try to do something to pay back the community that helped raise me,” Forge says. “I had seen too many people grow up, move off and never come back.”
Fast forward 23 years. In April 2018, MRaine Industries, with Forge at the helm, began producing bottled water using the artesian waters that flow out of the ground in Autaugaville. Today, the 225,000-square-foot bottling plant has 19 employees with plans to hire more as it grows, and its product distribution area has expanded from Alabama to the Southeast and Midwest.
More about Siri later.
Forge, one of seven children, had a determination that enabled him to excel in the high school classroom and on the football field while also holding down a job.
Rufus Pearson, who died in July 2020, said shortly after Forge opened the Autaugaville business that Forge, even in his high school days, had the drive and tenacity that many people search for all their lives. Pearson was the owner of Pearson Industries, a rope manufacturing plant 10 miles away in Prattville.
“His sister worked for us, and he came here looking for a job,” Pearson said at the time. “He was working after school on our second shift, which ended at 11:30 at night, and then he had to drive home way on the other side of Autaugaville. He also worked summers with us.”
After high school, Forge attended the University of Alabama where he was a walk-on on the football team and later earned a scholarship.
Once he earned a college degree, Forge help found a successful company connected with Alabama’s rising automobile manufacturing industry.
After the death of a family friend, Forge came home to offer condolences to the family. While in Autaugaville, he paid a visit to F.B. Ward, his high school principal, who had since retired and was serving as Autaugaville mayor.
“During our conversation I asked what I could do to help the town, and he told me about a water bottling plant that was sitting empty,” Forge says. “I’m in the automotive business and I know how to build a plant and make it run, but I didn’t know anything about artesian wells other than remembering them when I was growing up.”
The genesis of Eleven86
Forge said he spent nearly two years learning about water and praying for guidance.
Maneuvering through business dealings was another hurdle. He and his business partners couldn’t reach an agreement on the existing building, and getting financing on a new building didn’t come until he had approached nearly 20 lenders.
“Nobody wanted to lend money for a big building out in the country,” he says.
Once everything was in place, Forge and his partners began searching for a product name. They consulted Siri.
“We wanted something biblically based. We asked Siri (to tell us how many chapters are) in the Bible, and the answer came back 1,186,” Forge says. “We later learned the correct number was 1,189, but by that time everything was in place. That’s OK. God made man on the sixth day.” (The spelling ensures it’s pronounced “eleven eighty-six.”)
Artesian wells are not uncommon in Autauga County. Numerous free-flowing wells are scattered throughout Autaugaville while Prattville gets its nickname, the Fountain City, from the number of artesian fountains found in the city.
The concept of bottling the water is also hardly new in Autaugaville. At least two other vendors have tried bottling the water, but their businesses failed.
Forge knew the odds, but he thinks the perseverance he learned as a youth and on the football field is paying off. Shortly after opening the company, he teamed up with a marketing distributor, and Forge hopes the product will key its own success.
“It is a very smooth water, and it seems at least to me like it almost rejuvenates the body,” he says. “We are selling it at a mainstream cost; this is not a $4 bottle of water because we want everybody to enjoy it.”
Just the beginning
The water is produced deep underground in the Eutaw aquifer. MRaine Industries tapped into it by digging a well and pumping the water into the plant which has the capability to produce 14,400 16.9-ounce bottles of water an hour. In 2020 the company sold more than 10 million bottles and has expanded the product as far as Kansas and Missouri.
The water was named the official bottled water of the state of Alabama and is distributed statewide by Budweiser. If you’re staying at a Retirement Systems of Alabama resort, such as the Grand Hotel or Ross Bridge, Eleven86 is the water you’ll find in your room. You’ll also find it at all the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses in Alabama.
The water is tested twice weekly by a laboratory and submitted to health officials. MRaine Industries was also granted bottled water and food permits before production began.
“Eleven86 is only at the beginning of its journey,” Forge says. “The incredible feedback and support our consumers give us has been fueling our passion to continue spreading into new markets as fast as we can.”
Autaugaville Mayor Curtis Stoudemire said he expects the bottling plant to have a positive impact on the town and is pleased that a natural resource is being used to produce jobs and help the economy.
“As kids we more or less took the water for granted; it was just there near the playground at school,” Stoudemire says. “We didn’t know of its purity and probably didn’t care. We just knew we were thirsty and it was hot and the water coming out was always cool.”
While Forge is hoping to see his business grow, he said he is already reaping rewards.
“After we had hired our first group of employees, the seven-year-old son of one of those employees wanted to see the well,” Forge says. “While we were showing him the well he said, ‘My mother needs this job so she can be closer to home.’ I can’t tell you how that made me feel.”