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Sister Act

Cindi Bigelow is accustomed to the constant barrage of buyout offers she gets each and every week. People are calling me, writing me and hunting me down to buy this company, R.C. Bigelow's co-president told SN. Those that do and most are private investors are in for Cindi's typically blunt response: We are a family company. We have no interest in selling, she said. The family isn't the least bit curious

Cindi Bigelow is accustomed to the constant barrage of buyout offers she gets each and every week.

“People are calling me, writing me and hunting me down to buy this company,” R.C. Bigelow's co-president told SN.

Those that do — and most are private investors — are in for Cindi's typically blunt response:

“We are a family company. We have no interest in selling,” she said.

The family isn't the least bit curious about the details of acquisition offers, added Eunice Bigelow, Cindi's mother and the company's co-chief executive officer.

“We don't even ask how much they're willing to pay,” she said.

That kind of attitude is what sets Bigelow apart from other companies, said Joe Simrany, president of the New York-based Tea Association of USA, Tea Council and Specialty Tea Institute.

“The difference between Bigelow and all others is that it's truly a family business,” Simrany said. “They take pride in what they do.”

This could also explain how the 62-year-old company has grown from its start by Ruth Campbell Bigelow and her creation of the flagship Constant Comment flavor in her apartment kitchen to becoming one of the biggest tea vendors in the nation. Bigelow is the No. 2 bagged/loose tea brand based on dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending March 25 in the food, drug and mass market channels (excluding Wal-Mart), behind Lipton, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Today, Bigelow markets 80 varieties of flavored, traditional, organic green, herbal and decaffeinated tea. About seven new flavors are introduced each year, including, most recently, spiced chai, white tea with tangerine and green tea with blueberry.

While Eunice and husband David remain co-CEOs and involved in the business, they've relinquished much of the day-to-day control to their two daughters. Cindi handles sales and marketing, while Lori is tasked with research and development and product procurement.

A lot has changed in the two years since Cindi and Lori took over the helm. Among other efforts, the brand now sports updated packaging; offers organic, seasonal and chai teas; and is targeting new markets, including Hispanics. Bigelow has even started reaching out to men with new ad campaigns staring Joe Torre and Phil Simms.

“The brand was strong before, but we're revitalizing it to make sure it's vibrant, young and hip, and meets the contemporary demands of the tea consumer,” said Cindi.

Without revealing details of new ventures, Cindi hints that more news is on the way.

“Look for a lot of fun and exciting things coming out of this company,” she told SN during a tour of the company's 100,000-square-foot headquarters and tea blending/packaging plant in Fairfield, Conn. (The company has two other manufacturing plants in Louisville, Ky., and Boise, Idaho.)

David and Eunice Bigelow are impressed by the changes the sisters have made, saying their smart decisions have improved the Bigelow brand.

“They have been creating a lot of new products that I don't think we would have come up with,” David Bigelow told SN while working in the office he shares with Eunice. “We're more traditionalists.”

But Cindi is quick to say that her and Lori's efforts only complement the strong brand image her parents and grandmother worked so hard to develop.

She cited how in the 1980s her parents pioneered foil wrapping to protect the integrity of the tea bag inside. And as for quality, she points out how, for instance, Bigelow's Earl Grey contains handpicked tea leaves from high mountain gardens and real oil of bergamot, as opposed to flavoring.

The tea goes through about 10 quality assurance tests before reaching the consumer, said Lori Bigelow. These tests are conducted when tea is raw, then blended, then again when packaged. Lori oversees the entire process.

“We want to be sure that it tastes the way we want it to taste,” Lori said.

Lori scours research reports and articles to make sure Bigelow stays abreast of the latest news. For instance, when pomegranate came into vogue, Bigelow came out with Pomegranate Pizzazz and green tea with pomegranate.

“We really try to keep up with food trends,” Lori said.

Likewise, Lori is constantly looking for new areas to explore. The launch of holiday teas is one such example. The company developed in-and-out holiday shippers that contain flavors such as apple cider and pumpkin spice in the fall, and “eggnogg'n” in the winter.

“We're branching out into a lot of new things,” Lori said.

The company was also quick to capitalize on studies showing that men were coming into the category due to the health benefits of green tea. In 2005, it aligned itself with New York Yankees manager Joe Torre for a green tea ad campaign appearing in such publications as Sports Illustrated. Torre said in a statement that he has been drinking green tea for years because of its nutritional value and taste.

“Joe Torre drinks tons of Bigelow tea,” Cindi said.

Last year, the effort continued with another campaign featuring football star Phil Simms, and his son, Chris.

Bigelow is also tapping into another food trend: demand for meal solutions. Catering to time-starved home cooks who are searching for healthful meals to serve their families, Bigelow started providing recipes in print and on the Internet. In fact, one of every four people who visit the Bigelow website do so to get a recipe.

Based in part on that finding, Bigelow now includes recipes like “Green Tea Poached Shrimp” and “Pomegranate Muffins” in a promotional packet sent to targeted consumer homes.

“We continue to enhance our relationship with the consumer,” stressed Robert Kelly, Bigelow's sales and marketing vice president.

The recipes are printed in a four-page insert that also contains a coupon and information on tea baskets and gifts. A sample is also included.

“The kits have made a very strong impact,” said Kelly.

These and other efforts are needed at a time when Bigelow faces stiff competition not only from other specialty companies and big mainstream brands like Lipton, but also retailers, whose private-label programs are stronger than ever, said Ted Taft, managing director of Meridian Consulting, Westport, Conn.

By targeting key demographic groups and tapping into emerging trends, Bigelow can add value to both the consumer and the retailer.

“That's absolutely what they should be doing,” Taft said.

Simrany of the Tea Association of the USA agreed.

“Even though it's a small company, Bigelow is able to react to a changing and evolving market,” he said.

Tea Time in South Carolina

WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. — Packaged tea isn't the only way that R.C. Bigelow shares its love of tea with the public. The company also operates what's said to be the only tea farm in the nation.

Founded in 1960, the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation contains several hundred thousand descendants of tea bushes brought to the U.S. from China and India during the 1800s. The plant's location, about 25 minutes outside of Charleston, provides the necessary high temperatures, frequent rain and high humidity.

Lipton Tea Co. owned the farm from 1960 to 1987, when it sold it to tea expert William Hall. Hall used it to develop American Classic Tea, a black tea with a mild tone and sweet flavor.

The Bigelow family purchased the plantation in 2003, partnered with Hall, and spent the next three years restoring it to make it suitable for public tours. It was reopened last year.

Free tours include tea samples, visits with on-site tea experts, and a factory tour showing how tea is made.
— C.A.