Cindi Bigelow '86
The Bigelow, the better:
Thanks to Cindi Bigelow’s savvy business moves, Bigelow Tea has experienced unprecedented growth and become the nation’s No. 1 specialty tea company
By Rachel Farrell
In her latest YouTube video, Cindi Bigelow ’86, president of Bigelow Tea, goes to Boston’s Fenway Park to meet one of her tea consumers.
“This is so exciting,” she says in the video, looking into the camera with wide eyes. “I’m meeting Wally. I hear he’s a huge tea-drinker. ”
Wally the Green Monster, the Boston Red Sox’s mascot, lumbers toward Bigelow. He wraps his furry arms around her petite frame.
“Wally!” she cries, embracing him. “OK, first question: Do you drink tea?”
Wally gives her the thumbs-up.
She looks at him quizzically. “Whose tea do you drink?” she says.
He points at her with both index fingers.
“Bigelow Tea!” she exclaims. “You’re my man! You’re my man!”
Bigelow has a name for this kind of video: “‘Wow’ marketing,” she says. “We don’t do marketing just to do marketing — we only do it if we feel it’s going to have the ‘wow’ factor.” This particular marketing campaign, which was launched after Red Sox manager Terry Francona became a Bigelow Tea spokesperson, has been a “huge hit,” she says, and helped make Bigelow Tea no.1 in New York City and Boston. Besides her YouTube videos, Bigelow creates marketing splash by updating Bigelow Tea’s Facebook site and blogging about tea on bigelowteablog.com. It keeps the 63-year-old family business looking contemporary, she says, and keeps advertising costs down—something that’s a big priority for her. “We recognize that it’s very difficult to use advertising dollars and have a significant impact on tea consumption, unless you really do something that is incredibly creative,” she says. “Instead, we really put our [resources] into the product and packaging.”
In some respects, Bigelow’s business strategy may go against the grain—but so far, it’s working for Bigelow Tea. The Fairfield, Conn.-based company has sales of $120 million and has been the leading specialty tea company in the U.S. for the past two years, beating out competitors such as Celestial Seasonings and Lipton. Sales of its original blend, “Constant Comment,” are growing about four percent each year; in addition, its green tea and Earl Grey blend are the highest selling in their category in the U.S. Despite the current liquidity crisis, Bigelow says that her business hasn’t suffered, nor has she had to adjust Bigelow Tea’s business strategies. The company has grown between four and six percent annually for the past three years; produces in excess of 1.6 billion tea bags each year at its manufacturing facilities in Fairfield, Conn., Boise, Idaho and Louisville, Ky.; has a $3 million international business; holds big-name clients such as Microsoft, Marriott Hotels and Harvard University; and recently expanded into channels such as natural food stores, drug stores and boutique shops. As a result of an experimental venture—partnering with AriZona beverages to produce Green Tea with Ginseng & Honey, Green Tea with Mandarin Orange and Green Tea with Pomegranate & Acai—the company sold 100,000 cases of tea in six months. “That’s a lot of tea,” Bigelow says. “Believe me.”
Perhaps one of Bigelow’s business secrets is that she’s intimately connected to her 350 employees, or “families,” as she likes to call them. She tells operators to contact her whenever they have an issue that requires her attention. When Bigelow hires managers or supervisors, she instructs them to “provide a positive environment” and “set the right tone” for employees. It’s a welcome change from a decade ago, when the manufacturing side of Bigelow Tea was suffering from poor employee retention, low morale and high plant downtime. Bigelow stepped in—first as department manager, then as director of manufacturing and later as vice president of operations—and implemented “such basics,” she says. “Listening, caring, communicating, making employees feel like they are a part of the company.” That’s not to say that she’s not concerned with sales numbers. “Don’t get me wrong; I watch numbers like a hawk. But if you make the employees understand why every penny counts, you don’t have to worry. They do great work for you.”
Bigelow’s grandmother, Ruth, founded Bigelow Tea during the height of the Great Depression after she lost her job as an interior designer and decided to go into business for herself. Gathering inspiration from an old colonial recipe, Ruth experimented with tea leaves, orange peel and spices in her kitchen until she found the right blend, and then served it to a group of women at a party. Party-goers told her the tea was a source of “constant comment,” which later became the tea’s name. With help from her husband David, who had been laid off from his publishing job, and son David, Ruth packaged “Constant Comment” into canisters and started pitching the product to local grocers. During the day, the family would sell tea from the back of their station wagon; at night, they would hand-paint pictures of ladies sipping tea onto the canisters. When David Jr. took over the business as an adult, he expanded the line to include flavors such as lemon, mint and cinnamon and a selection of herbal teas. Fifteen years ago, he launched a green tea blend, which positioned the company well for the “green frenzy” that hit years later when reports emerged about the health and diet benefits of that kind of tea.
Bigelow grew up watching her father run the business and, by age 16, knew that she wanted to lead the company eventually. “Every pore in my body wanted to run the business,” she says. “It was what I always believed I should do.” The power-shift created tension, however. “The [younger] generation ends of looking like the Grim Reaper to the older generation,” she explains. “They remind the older generation of their age. You have to understand the emotional psyche and the dynamics underneath it. And you have to honor that.”
To ensure that she would be well-prepared to run the company, Bigelow enrolled in the Kellogg School’s Full-Time MBA Program after working as a sales and promotion manager at Joseph E. Seagram’s and Sons for two years. The program was challenging, to say the least. Often, Bigelow would work for 17 or 18 hours straight, or until she collapsed with exhaustion from studying. “Here’s what I learned at Kellogg: I didn’t know I could do that much,” Bigelow laughs. “I didn’t know any human being could do that much.” But the payoff was worth it: She learned how to delegate, work effectively in a team environment and identify ways to tap into the strengths of people around her. Come graduation, she was in the top 10 percent of her class. “In terms of my development in the business world, it was one of the best things that I ever did for myself,” she says.
While Kellogg may have been good for Bigelow, Bigelow has been good for her community. Active in philanthropy, she is the founder of the Annual Bigelow Tea Community Challenge Road Race, which to date has raised more than $400,000 for the Fairfield community. To make Bigelow Tea more environmentally friendly, she implemented a “Sustainabiliti…TEA Program” and spent $1.5 million installing 900 solar panels on the company’s roof. Bigelow has also been active in the YMCA since 1991, helped built a playground at Fairfield’s Jennings Beach in 1996, and sponsored construction of a Habitat for Humanity home in 2003. For her efforts, she was honored with the Ernst & Young Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2002.
If you ask Bigelow where Bigelow Tea is headed, her answer comes quickly: “Forward,” she says. Her goal for the company is to maintain a “healthy growth rate of five percent a year,” rather than an aggressive 10 or 20 percent growth. While she feels pleased by Bigelow Tea’s small success in the global market, “I’d never be so bold as to say that Bigelow fits in the ‘global stage,’” she says. “The global stage is a lot bigger than little Bigelow Tea. What I’m comfortable saying is that we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can work through the current global and economic crisis very nicely.”
Posted December 2008