Organic growth: Catherine Archer

As Jing Tea opens its first retail boutique, Brummell talks to its CEO about growing a brand, leading a team and staying agile

People 24 Jan 2020

Catherine Archer, CEO of Jing Tea
Tea flight experiences at the Jing boutique start at £25pp for a 45-minute session

I joined Jing Tea almost three years ago, as MD initially and now CEO, but I’ve worked in food and drink FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) businesses for more than 20 years. Previously I worked at Unilever as a global marketing director in the premium tea category, and that’s where my eyes were really opened to the beauty of tea – it was as if a door opened to a whole other world. While there may be up to 60 different types of tea in a standard tea bag (as the focus is on blending teas to achieve a very consistent taste) – very much like fine wines – I discovered that single-estate teas deliver distinctive flavour notes that reflect the places, the people and the processes behind them. Additionally, especially in China – where they have 10,000 different teas alone – tea has long been such an important part of culture, religion and history, that there’s also a fascinating and immersive world that surrounds it. From gaining an understanding of the individual terroirs to discovering the mythical stories set around beautiful mist-covered mountains, my eyes were opened to this world and I fell in love with it.

Jing Tea was founded by Edward Eisler in 2004. The business is built on his absolute passion to promote and protect the authentic tea industry, sourcing the best teas that reflect the different people and places behind them. We focus on single gardens and personal relationships, forming close partnerships with those farmers and master tea makers.

The Jing Tea boutique at St Christopher's Place, London
The Jing Tea boutique at St Christopher’s Place, London

Ed was very visionary when he founded Jing, establishing two of the key values that we have in the business. One is around excellence in everything that we do – from the quality of the leaves to the service levels that we provide for our customers. The other is integrity, not only in terms of transparency and the product, but also by working directly with the farmers to ensure the people behind these beautiful products are supported and rewarded, helping to protect the craftsmanship and the sustainability of the industry. Some of these craftsmen have been working for 40-50 years to master their craft and have skills that have passed through generations. For us to work directly with them, and to promote and protect that for the future, is something that has absolutely always been at the heart of Jing. Aside from being fantastic from a transparency and quality perspective, it really adds a soul to the product, and to the day-to-day business, which I love.

My role is focused on setting and enabling the long-term vision of the business, which is to create a brand that we’ll still be proud of in five – or 50 – years’ time, and to make sure the key blocks, and the key people, are in place to enable us to get there.

The Jing team has grown a lot in the last few years – there are more than 30 of us now. The size of the business means we have an agility that is very different to a lot of the businesses I’ve worked in previously, which were very large conglomerates and matrix structures. At Jing we’ve got the best of both worlds – a long-term business approach, with the agility and ability to act fast when required. We really try to focus on a learning culture – on testing, reviewing, learning and amending as a result. The best piece of advice I’ve ever had was ‘fail fast, learn quickly’. It’s a very freeing principle, the idea that it’s fine to fail as long as you optimise your approach as a result of it. If you can marry that principle of a continuous learning culture with resilience, I think that is the absolute secret to success.

I try to inspire the team by setting a clear vision and giving them very clear direction. The individual team members are very focused on individual areas and projects, so being able to guide everyone in line with our longer-term objectives is really important. I try to be accessible and human as well. I think that’s very important in terms of motivating a team –clarity of direction combined with human leadership.

Most recently that direction has been about me leading the move into the B2C layer, with the opening of the first Jing store in the centre of London. In terms of the boutique, this is our first foray into retail. A lot of people are talking about the challenges of retail on the high street, but actually the experiential-based brands and the luxury brands are reporting their best figures to date. That’s because there is a real desire at the moment to focus less on material aspects, and more on experiences. We’ve worked within the hospitality industry for the last 15 years, but we have always wanted to bring high-quality tea experiences to as many people as possible, so we now have a store at a great location on St Christopher’s place, just off Oxford Street.

With the boutique we’ve created a space designed to immerse people in the world of authentic tea; providing details of the individual tea gardens, the altitude the teas are grown at, the key tasting notes and video screens that bring those individual origins to life. We also have a tea-tasting bar, with Jing tea experts who can deliver tastings for people who want to explore and learn. We also offer curated tea flights, where one of the experts will guide you through three specially selected teas – very much like a wine tasting – talking you through the history of tea, the six different tea types, from white to Pu erh, or talking to you about the individual origins, the master craftsman behind the tea and the key tasting notes.

This year we’ll have lots of regular tastings and special events at the store – for January we are looking at wellbeing, with matcha masterclasses and wellness-focused tea flights. As we go into Easter we’ll be doing tea and chocolate pairings. And then specific origin-focused events such as bringing to life the history and culture of Japanese teas. It’s a really immersive and educational experience that will provide people with an opportunity to have an emotional connection with the teas, to know the people and the places behind the drink and to understand the craftsmanship that has gone into it.

The way brands and consumers communicate has fundamentally changed since I started my career. Back then there were no smartphones or social media, it was all very much big brands and big ad campaigns. Now there is much more desire for personalisation, connection and transparency. There has been a real push from consumers for brands to raise their game when it comes to the delivery of messaging, of products, of packaging and of sustainability credentials; and you’ll be held to account if that isn’t delivered upon. That can, of course, be terrifying, but I think it is absolutely right and really motivating. It’s a very good sense check and way to ensure we are at the top of our game.

I try to see things that are daunting or challenging as an opportunity. If you re-anchor something in your mind as a learning experience, rather than something to fear, it is such an enabling and powerful way to approach it. You may not get it perfectly right, but you will progress and you will learn as a result of throwing yourself into the experience – that is when you learn the most.

At the heart of it all it’s still about understanding people, and the market is now a much more purpose-driven place. The dynamics of your team, the skillsets required, the investment, business modelling and routes to market may change, but as long as you stay true to the founding principals of your brand, and to understanding your consumers, then it is just the execution that changes. The philosophy stays the same.

Catherine Archer is the CEO of Jing Tea. The Jing store is now open at 18-19 St Christopher’s Place, London W1U 1NN;