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TAHA BOUQDIB DOESN’T believe in coincidences. He uses words like “soul”, “destiny” and “in my blood” when describing how he got into the tea business at the age of 23.
The Frenchman of Moroccan origin had his first taste of Chinese tea when he was 12, a gift from the Chinese embassy to his parents who worked for the Moroccan government. He found Chinese tea fascinatingly strange and different from ordinary Moroccan tea (green tea with spearmint and sugar) and that memory of its taste stuck in his head for much of his life.
In 1993, despite his father’s wish that he too should work for the Moroccan government, the international law graduate moved to Paris to join a French tea company. He spent 15 years learning the ins and outs of the industry, from tea blends to package design, before finding a partner in Hong Kong-born businessman Manoj Murjani to launch TWG Tea in 2008.
In the last 10 years, the gourmet tea company has seen its share of ups and downs. In 2011, when OSIM International purchased a 35 per cent stake in the company for S$31.4 million, TWG was struggling with three stores and making a loss of S$2 million. OSIM chairman and CEO Ron Sim candidly described the company as being in “disarray” and stepped in to help.
In 2013, TWG Tea lost a court battle with Hong Kong tea retailer Tsit Wing Group which had trademarked TWG in its name, forcing the former to rename its Hong Kong store to Tea WG. More troubles followed when former co-founder Murjani tried to sue OSIM for allegedly sacking him as CEO of TWG Tea; but the case by dismissed in 2016.
The company continued on with its expansion plans, with OSIM growing its stake to 69.9 per cent. TWG Tea now has product distribution in 42 countries and 70 tea salons and boutiques in 19 countries. Last year, it reported profits of S$7 million before tax, a sure sign of its turnaround.
Mr Bouqdib, who is 49-years-old and married with a son, continues to do what he enjoys most – working on the creative aspects of the company, such as inventing new blends to add to the already extensive list of over 800 flavours, designing the look of its stores and packages, and plotting the expansion of TWG into uncharted territories.
Several marketing studies show that when a consumer has too many choices, he or she becomes overwhelmed and ends up not buying anything. Sometimes it’s best to present four choices instead of 400, but TWG Tea sells over 800 flavours of tea in its stores. And that hasn’t stopped it from going global.
When I was putting together the concept of the TWG Tea store, I wasn’t thinking of it as a store, but a place where people can come and take off to another country. My dream was to bring all the teas being produced in the world into the store, so that every individual would be able to find something that’s just right for himself - his own personal universe, so to speak. To do this, I have to have the largest tea selection in the world. And I need a way to communicate all these choices. So in our stores, we have a basic menu as well as an accompanying booklet to refer to all those over 800 flavours in detail. Of course, sometimes people do say: “You know what? It's all too much for me.” And that’s where our staff member would help in advising them which tea they might like, depending on their mood and preferences. And that is why we pour a lot of effort and investment into training our staff to know our products in and out.
What differentiates luxury tea from ordinary tea?
For me, the word luxury doesn't really exist... Rather, luxury exists in the details. All these details come together to give you a sense of luxury. Luxury in itself doesn’t exist. I wear Dior, for instance, because it’s the only suit I feel I could wear anywhere to – be it the office or warehouse – and it would be comfortable enough for me to get all kinds of things done. I can pair a Dior jacket with jeans and still move freely the way I want to. For TWG, I always believe that to immerse your customer in the world of luxury, you have to provide all the smallest details. So when I buy tea leaves, for instance, I insist of acquiring the best, the tastiest, the most exquisite. Because when the customer comes to a TWG salon or boutique, he might be able to enjoy the experience of sitting down comfortably for a good cup of tea. But when he goes home with a TWG product, he must still be able to create a cup of TWG tea and experience luxury, regardless of what his surroundings may be. The luxury is in the smallest details.
What strategies have helped you expand globally in under seven years?
From the start, we believed that Asia was ready to create a luxury brand, and that tea was the right product for it. Tea has existed for thousands of years here, but yet most Asians have been buying European or American brands of tea. The West was importing tea from Asia, packaging it very well, and selling it back to Asia. So we thought, let’s figure out how we can package tea better than these other brands. We would find the highest quality of tea leaves, blend them, package them exquisitely, and send them out to the world. Of course, it takes a huge amount of effort and coordination to make this happen. But we believed from the start that we had the right concept.
What do you think could have upended those global ambitions?
Fear. Financial worries. Very often when a company fails, it is the financial worries that brings down the entrepreneur. In our case, we starting building TWG right around the time of the global financial crisis of 2008. People told us we would fail because what we were trying to do was too ambitious. But we held fast to the belief of bringing a luxurious cup of tea to anyone who wanted it.
TWG Tea has had to overcome several challenges and obstacles. Which do you count as your biggest?
I think we had one very bad experience. It was our big fight with regards to the logo (in Hong Kong). But it was a learning experience for us that before we go anywhere, we should have done our homework. This is very important. Second point is to find the right people. When you have retail, F&B, and an arrangement similar to wholesale, finding the right people for all your teams is hard. We’re looking for good staff everyday. And when we do, we try to hold on to them.
You pay a lot of attention to the world of fashion, because you feel it informs how you design the stores, the packaging and other aspects of TWG Tea.
I do. I go to fashion shows every season to find out what the emerging trends are. The show itself may last for just 15 minutes. But you spend a lot of time afterwards mingling with people and finding out what trends they think will be big in the coming year, what colours they are looking at. I try to incorporate these major trends into the look and design of TWG Tea. TWG Tea must not be a dusty colonial brand. To exude luxury, it needs to stay in touch with the fashion world.