A longstanding customer of Finlays, Bigelow Tea is the very definition of a family business, not just because it’s run by a family, but because of its values-driven approach. Founded in 1945 by Ruth Campbell Bigelow, today Bigelow tea is run by Ruth’s granddaughter Cindi Bigelow and is the number one specialty tea company in the us. But more than that, it’s a business powered by an uncompromising integrity and a singular focus on creating quality products. We sat down with Cindi to discuss Bigelow, us tea trends, and the power of good old-fashioned family values.
For Cindi Bigelow, nothing is more important than family. And given she counts her hundreds of employees as part of her family, that’s no small claim.
Warm, energetic and inspirational, Cindi is CEO and President of Bigelow Tea, the largest specialty tea company in the US. Ask Cindi to describe Bigelow as a business and she’s more likely to frame her answer in terms of values and impact in the community than she is in more prosaic business terms.
The company’s purpose is, she says, “to create an environment of pride that brings out everyone’s desire and ability to make a difference every day”. Its vision is “to harness that pride in order to deliver an uncompromising quality tea experience that enriches life’s everyday moments”.
Speaking with Cindi, it’s quickly apparent that she does things differently and that Bigelow Tea is more than just a business – it’s a way of life. It’s precisely this tenacious, uncompromising, community-focused approach that has led it to become a much-loved household name across the US.
“We live by our values every day,” she explains. “We talk about them, live them and role model them so everyone in this company understands that we honour that they chose to work here. We feel blessed that they want to work for our family, and they know they are working for a place that strives to be genuine and transparent. Those are the reasons we believe this company is doing well.”
Introducing the US to speciality tea
For over 70 years and across three generations, the Bigelow family has been passionate about one thing in particular – tea. The business was founded by Cindi’s grandmother Ruth Campbell Bigelow who had been dissatisfied with the commodity standard of tea available at the time.
After weeks of experimenting at the kitchen table, Ruth created the first-ever cup of speciality tea in the US. Cindi explains: “She named it ‘Constant Comment’ after she came back from a party where people didn’t stop talking about it. Through sheer grit, tenacity and a quality product, the company survived. Today we’re the number one speciality tea company in America. It’s about family, integrity and being uncompromising in everything that we do.”
Cindi took the helm from her parents in 2005, but not before spending 20 years working in different roles. “I was exposed to all areas of the business while building my own relationships. It was a real period of change for the company, we were smaller, a lot was needed to build the brand, and it built the foundation which I still use to help me lead the business today.”
Understanding every area of the business is something Cindi still finds invaluable. “There’s a trust factor between me and the employees. They know when I say something it is 100% the truth. It’s my job as CEO and President to live, breathe and execute on our values.”
Bigelow Tea offers over 150 teas across a number of ranges, available across the US, and in Canada, Mexico and South America. Keeping on top of trends in tea is important to Bigelow. Cindi says: “Our job is to ensure that if there is a desire for a type of tea, we can provide it. If someone has a need for a real quality cup of tea, they can find what they want.”
An uncompromising approach to quality is also front of Cindi’s mind. “If we’re going to create a new product, we don’t just want to be better than the competition, we want it to be incredibly delicious. We have actually pulled new product launches because, even though we were better than the competition, we weren’t delivering on the flavour we needed to be truly outstanding.”
A shared passion for tea
Finlays supplies Bigelow Tea with a wide variety of teas from its farms in Sri Lanka and Argentina. In 2019, Bigelow Tea was also the first customer of James Finlay Guizhou, Finlays’ new operation in China, which uses an innovative sustainable sourcing model to produce and process certified Chinese tea. What drew Cindi to Finlays, she says, was that it shared her passion for high-quality tea. “What I like about Finlays is that it’s tea people. Finlays is the definition of dedicated and passionate tea individuals.”
Cindi recalls a time early in the relationship when she was visiting a Finlays tea garden in Sri Lanka, where she saw precisely the care and attention that went into producing high-quality tea. “I was taken aback by their dedication,” she says. “Finlays is the real deal. It’s more than the quality of the product, it’s the quality of the people. Tea isn’t an industry for everyone – you’ve got to understand the intimacy of the people, their knowledge base. It’s for true tea people.”
B-ing the change
For Cindi, the power of being a family business is that it means you can do the right thing. “I always say our shareholders are our employees and the community. We’re not here to build family wealth – we don’t even think like that. We care about the greater community.”
It’s no surprise to learn then that Bigelow Tea is a B Corporation – an increasingly visible and highly-regarded global certification scheme for businesses that, in its own words, “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”. What is interesting however, is that Bigelow Teas had been thinking and acting as a B Corporation long before such a concept existed.
Cindi explains: “I was interested in being a B Corp before anyone knew what it was. It’s a great blueprint on how to run a company. I went to our board of directors and told them I wanted to do this in order to challenge us to become the best employer possible.” For Cindi, becoming a B Corporation is not an end in itself, nor is it a marketing tool. “It’s got to be holistic. It’s not just about being a B Corp, it’s about being a living and breathing organisation for good.”
Bigelow Teas recently achieved using 100% renewable energy and has been zero waste to landfill for several years. Cindi says: “We love pursuing these things because we can, and because we should.”
A Charleston Tea Party
You might be surprised to learn that not only can you grow tea in the US, but that in the right hands, it makes it fabulous and unique. Case in point: Bigelow Tea’s own tea gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, the largest commercial tea gardens in the US. Cindi says: “We protected the land from being turned into condominiums. We produce a specific type of tea that reflects a flavour based on the soil and low altitude, which is what makes that tea so unique.”
As well as producing tea that is sold in the local area, the gardens attract 80,000 people per year. They come to enjoy the stunning surroundings and trolleybus rides, while also seeing a tea harvester in action and tea being grown and processed on American soil. It is, by all accounts, a wonderful celebration of tea and a vibrant monument to how Bigelow does things differently.
Tea trends in the US
Unlike in the UK or Asia, tea has long played second fiddle to coffee in the hearts of the American consumer. While Cindi doesn’t see tea challenging coffee’s crown quite yet, she has spotted a rising trend among the younger generations. “The older population are more coffee drinkers. But those aged 25 and below are 50/50 coffee and tea. That’s happened over the last four to five years.”
Asked why she thinks that is, Cindi explains: “It’s more of a conversation piece. Green and black tea is the brew of a powerful plant and herbal teas also carry so many benefits. All of them have their medicinal properties. There’s greater awareness of that. People are just more aware of tea’s health benefits. It’s loaded with antioxidants and the younger generations are really enjoying it.”
Cindi sees the health halo tea enjoys as vital to Bigelow’s product strategy. “We have to make sure we’re producing a product that’s completely delicious, but also healthy. That’s going to be our direction. Product innovation is something we spend quality time on. In the world of tea, we do think of ourselves as very innovative.”
A business for the long-term
Cindi’s passion for tea and for making the world a better place is effervescent. At a time when brands and businesses have been quick to jump on the social impact bandwagon, it’s refreshing to hear from a business which recognised business’ role in making the world a better place, long before doing so was fashionable. Not that this was the intention, but Bigelow’s unique approach is helping it go from strength to strength, making it a business for the long-term. “If you look at who’s growing, it’s Bigelow tea,” says Cindi. “We think the reason why we’re doing well is because ultimately the customer does realise we offer quality for value.”
For more information about Bigelow tea, visit www.bigelowtea.com or click here to find out more about our tea products and solutions.