English Tea Shop, Sri Lanka

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I was lucky enough to visit the English Tea Shop HQ to meet the owner and his fantastic team of dedicated employees.

It didn’t take me long to realise that English Tea Shop was a global business born out of an idea created by Suranga after he benefited from studying an MBA at Harvard. ‘Shared values’ he kept saying over dinner. ‘Ensuring the suppliers and the end clients are all engaged is the purpose of the business’. ‘We’re bucking the trend of businesses in Sri Lanka’ he said as I gorged myself on the various shellfish he had selected for us. Suranga seemed to talk with clarity, knowledge and total sense. He said English Tea Shop was like a ‘Google of Sri Lanka’. As we finished the meal I was excited to see what he meant.

The  next morning we drive to English Tea Shop HQ in Dematagoda. Metal gates wheel open as we drive in. Met by a living wall scaling the side of the two-storey building we walk up the side stairs and are greeted inside by the reception. Warm, clean, open and modern. The English Tea Shop offices are welcoming. Met by faces with beaming smiles wherever you look, the first impression you get is; these people like their jobs – shared values. As we are walked through the office the receptionist is wearing a light green branded polo shirt, as is the HR team, the Finance team, the buying team, the account managers, the senior team, and there in the Boardroom, Suranga. Dressed the same as all the rest, light green ETS polo shirt. Shared Values.

There’s another living wall in the boardroom. A large oval shaped table in the middle, chairs line the walls. At one end a massive flat screen TV at the other there’s a display cabinet showing off an array of their various products. They sell 80+ different tea blends. They sit us down to watch their promotional video. It focuses on the supply – organic, invested, supported. ‘It’s not about CSR, it’s about shared values’ was the line that stuck with me. For so many companies nowadays, it seems like CSR is simply a tick box exercise. Too easy. This isn’t the English Tea Shop way.

At this point we have photos. Proof I wasn’t in Sri Lanka just on holiday. I was working. We leave HQ and head to Kotikawatta to see the newly acquired warehouse and tea tasting training academy; where the magic happens. Yes, they have a tea tasting training academy. The warehouse is full. Ten metres high. Tea, packaging, boxes, all in different languages. I spot a variety of European, Chinese, Russian and languages I’ve never seen before. It’s a serious outfit. In a country where it takes 15 minutes to get a licence to legally drive on the roads this company is totally compliant to trade on the global market. It’s not short of hats off impressive.

We meet the Master Tea Taster. Turns out I can’t taste tea. It’s a slurp. Not a drunken slurrrp. A short sharp burst, spoon at 20 degrees, hard slurp, deep swirl in the mouth, and then the spit… I’ve never used a spittoon. Difficult. They laughed. English Breakfast isn’t nice on the slurp. Raspberry is too sweet. The new curry leaf – just weird. When tasted later… delicious. I’ll stick to a standard brew.

As we walk around we come across a man meticulously emptying small tins of tea into various piles. He’s freeing up the auction tins. Every week there’s a tea auction. Plantations send these small sample tins to potential purchasers, such as English Tea Shop, they grade the sample on numerous factors including texture, cut, taste, and feel. A week later the auction takes place. I’m told English Tea Shop no longer enter the auctions. They have their suppliers. Contracted. Committed. Shared values. Clever.

Moving on from the tea tasting academy we head to Ambathale where the main production house is located. If the magic happens in Kotikawatta, then this is where Father Christmas is turned into a reality. It’s the hard graft. Blue overalls are the order of the day; 87 workers in each day, we’re accurately told. It’s all about efficiency here. This is the sharp end of the operation. Glue applied to the bottom of the box that hold 20 Lemongrass & Ginger teabags. Not something I’d thought about before. With 95% female employees, the processes are meticulous. Two to three hours at a time on the same job, a tea break, then lunch and back to it. With clear targets,  leaders observe. It’s military in it’s approach and definitely gets the job done.

I’m then told that only two weeks ago, before Christmas, that the head office workers were on the floor supporting these blue overalled workers, gluing, folding, packaging. This is what it takes to make a successfully business. Shared values. Again. They love it. We then move downstairs and see the development of the business. Machines. They do the job of five workers. Folding, cutting, gluing, sticking, packing. It’s an Italian machine. Unstoppable. Pour the loose tea in from the floor above and 30 minutes later there 500+ tea bags ready to sell. It’s natural development and progression.

Off to the canteen for lunch, it was brilliant, over 350 workers, all given a choice of 10 different options for lunch. 2 different rice options, chicken red curry, a fish curry/kirata, curry boiled eggs (delicious!), a green bean dish, another green veg option Koss Mallum, a dried fish curry, another egg option and a rice puller, which I think is a sweet option. We’re offered cutlery but everyone is eating with their hands. When in Rome. Delicious. It’s a 30 minute lunch break. Every minute counts. Wash up and back to work.

From my limited knowledge I understand that English Tea Shop sell in the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) market. With a rudimental understanding that the cheaper and faster you produce your product the more money you make. English Tea Shop are different. Don’t get me wrong they are meticulously efficient in their business approach. They offer a transparency throughout their business from the guy that picks the tea, to the lady that sticks the bag, to the shirt wearing office worker, to Suranga the owner, where everyone understands the common goal. And not only does this common bond increase productivity but it also offers a USP on scale. English Tea Shop are a ‘cool tea brand’ (not a phrase I ever thought I’d use). They are independent. They engage and invest in their suppliers, work force and subsequently their consumers. It shows.

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