Cindi Bigelow rips open a bag of her family’s Earl Grey tea, splaying the contents out on a crisp white napkin to highlight the dark, black leaves inside. With the scent of Calabrian bergamot lingering, she tears open two more bags from much larger competitors, dumping each onto the napkin, huffing at the contents: synthetic white flavor crystals in one, pieces of light brown tea plant stem, a bitter-tasting filler, in the other.
“People say, ‘Oh, look at that little conventional old product line. It’s so not cool and relevant.’ But I’m like, ‘Wait, whoa-whoa-whoa!’ ” she says. “We put everything into the product. Everything.”
The CEO of Bigelow Tea revels in this show of quality—for her, a key ingredient to remaining the top specialty tea seller in the U.S. The Bigelows have accomplished what is only a half-steeped dream for most family businesses: passing the company down from the first generation to the second and, with Cindi, 59, to the third.
A lot of credit goes to holding firm to tradition, including still using the recipe Cindi’s grandmother created in her kitchen in 1945 for its signature Constant Comment tea. Her father, David, took over the business from her grandmother in 1959 and ran it for 45 years, transforming it from a niche, mail-order gift shop brand into a grocery store staple. Cindi, the younger of his two daughters, joined in 1986 armed with an M.B.A. from Northwestern and spent two decades working her way through the business, starting in the accounting department.
This is not to say the Bigelows didn’t spill a little tea along the way. They both had to contend with a generational transfer—a particular challenge for David—and keeping up in a $12 billion global industry that favors mass commercialization, consolidation and low costs. Nonetheless, Fairfield, Connecticut-based Bigelow Tea, which, like all our Forbes Small Giants, values greatness over growth, has doubled in revenue since Cindi took over in 2005, now with $200 million in annual revenue.
“He felt, I’m sure for years, that he was the best one to probably run the company,” says Cindi. “Sometimes that generation will be very controlling; it has to be their way. That’s a kiss of death.”
As Cindi’s experience at the company grew, so did the pushback. She proposed a line of holiday-themed teas, but David didn’t have any interest in flavors like pumpkin spice or eggnog. Then came a push into natural grocery stores, but he disliked the idea of piling on more costs to get shelf space and consumer awareness. The tense arrangement lasted for years and wasn’t sorted out until Cindi called a family meeting to unload on her 79-year-old father.
“I explained to him what his actions were doing to me personally. And once he heard that, everything melted away,” she said. “It became about doing the right thing for the family, but it did take a pretty significant conversation to get to that place.”
Bigelow now produces two billion tea bags from its three plants every year, feeding a product line that comprises 150 flavors. It shuns the more industrial “cut-tear-curl” drying practices as well as buying cheap tea like a popular kind used by many competitors, which is officially classified as “dust.” While most competitors long ago stopped sourcing from Sri Lanka because of the high costs there, Bigelow still buys from dealers it has worked with for years, purchasing tea leaves only from mountaintop farms, where the flavor is crisper.
Says Richard Enticott, a veteran botanicals broker who works with Bigelow and its competitors: “They’re not hard negotiators because they recognize their partners need to be successful. In a lot of negotiations we do, price is everything.”
Bigelow is now registered as a benefit corporation in Connecticut, which requires businesses to have a positive impact on workers and the environment. It also received national certification this year as a B Corp thanks to longtime practices like giving bonuses to all plant workers based on annual sales and converting its three plants to renewable energy.
It has also defied an industry consolidation trend, led by Unilever, which has rolled up brands like Lipton, Pure Leaf, Pukka and, most recently, Tazo, which it acquired from Starbucks for $384 million in 2017. Bigelow, the only independent top-selling tea company left, would likely fetch far more, and PE firms and public companies call at least once a week, Cindi says. So far they’ve all been rebuffed.
David and his wife, Eunice, both well into their 90s, still mix each batch of Constant Comment monthly, working behind the only door in the plant that doesn’t have a window, taping over the security cameras before they start mixing. They shared the recipe with their daughter only five years ago. Cindi may have to decide someday when to share it with her two children, both in their 20s, who will inherit the business when she’s gone.
“One of the reasons we never sold this company,” says David, “was because the first day we sold it, they’d open up a Constant Comment tea bag, count the number of orange peel pieces and go, ‘There were 15 pieces of orange peel in it. That’s ridiculous. They don’t need more than 10.’ ”
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