From the Ski Slopes to the Soda Stands: The Early Years of Peter van Stolk

“The customer's not always right. F--- that. If you're always trying to cater to everyone, you have no soul.”

A bold statement by a bold man, Jones Soda founder Peter van Stolk never was your typical CEO. With his shaved head and jean-clad body, his outspoken attitude, and his readiness to ignore all the rules, van Stolk broke the mould. But 22 years after he founded the wild and wacky beverage company (who can forget his Thanksgiving Turkey and Gravy Soda?), Jones Soda continues to rake in sales of almost $40 million. Not bad for a boy who started out as little more than a ski bum.

Born in 1965 in Edmonton, Canada, van Stolk attended Grant McKewan College but left before finishing his studies. Van Stolk found it difficult to focus on school, instead shifting his attention to the ski slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. By the time he turned 19 years old, van Stolk had become a professional skier, paying for this passion of his by working as a ski instructor. When his friends went away to college, van Stolk stayed behind to keep working on the ski slopes.

While van Stolk was enjoying his life, his father was less than thrilled with his son’s pursuits. Van Stolk’s father was a psychiatrist, and wanted his son to at the very least go back to college. “I had a nice car, and I did it all myself,” recalls van Stolk. “[My father] said, ‘Go to school,’ and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Instead, and still to his father’s dismay, van Stolk started a fruit stand. He experienced modest success and soon, van Stolk’s ambitions grew larger, and he began importing orange juice. “I thought I would be the orange juice czar of Canada,” he said. Van Stolk even sold his hard-earned car in order to keep his business going.

After his sales reached $11,000 in the first year of business, van Stolk decided he would need to diversify in order to continue. That is when he founded Urban Juice and Soda, a beverage distribution company. In 1987, his new company got a big boost in business when van Stolk was able to broker a deal with Just Pik’t Juices, becoming exclusive distributor for its patented line of freshly squeezed juices throughout western Canada.

Following two years of steady growth, van Stolk moved his company to Calgary and later, Vancouver. By that time, Urban Juice had become the largest distributor of Just Pik’t Juices in North America, and van Stolk saw nothing but more opportunity. From there, he set out to acquire distribution rights for other alternative drinks, including Thomas Kemper Sodas, AriZona Iced Teas, and West End Soda Brew.

Despite his success, van Stolk was itching to be more than just a distributor of the products of others. He wanted to become his own brand creator, and in 1994, that is exactly what van Stolk became.

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