CEO Series

Gryphon Tea Founder Spills The Tea On How He Built A Global Brand With A S$2.5K Investment

“I believe that the little pressures as a business owner help to keep us grounded and move forward,” 50-year-old Lim Tian Wee told us.

“[For] me, the pressure is to leave a sustainable legacy; so that we can continue to inspire the next generation of business leaders.”

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Founder of Gryphon Tea Company, Lim Tian Wee / Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

Steeped in the business of tea is fourth-generation tea trader Mr Lim, whose family continues to run the century-old Lim Lam Thye.

His great-grandmother, Lim Kheng Thiam, had established the family business originally as a provision shop selling Chinese tea in 1918, and now it’s one of Singapore’s largest tea importer.

In 2006, he decided to strike it out on his own and founded the Gryphon Tea Company.

School Of Tea

Teenaged Mr Lim (leftmost) with his parents and younger brother / Image Credit: Lim Tian Wee

Mr Lim used to watch his grandfather “artfully prepare his cup of dark, roasted ‘shui xian’ oolong every morning” when he was young.

The tea-maker recalled the times when he earned S$5 a day for helping out at the family business, opening wooden tea chests and blending tea with shovels in the warehouse.

Before joining Lim Lam Thye, he held marketing roles at Unilever and Beiersdorf AG, according to a feature in 2015.

He got his start in the corporate world as a sales management trainee for an FMCG multinational corporation, he told Vulcan Post.

“When I was in university, I studied marketing with an emphasis in food marketing,” Mr Lim recounted.

“Upon the invitation from the dean of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, I also took a semester in Food Science Management.”

He spent his uni days bussing at a Chinese restaurant and revealed that the restaurant owners had offered him a job as the restaurant manager.

Mr Lim Keng Tong with his father Mr Lim Kim Ban, Founder of Lim Lam Thye / Image Credit: Lim Tian Wee

“But my dad would have killed me,” he shared.

His passion for the F&B industry ran deep since he was young and he reckoned that if he wasn’t selling tea, he’d “probably run a restaurant or be a chef”.

With that passion and his tea-loving family background, one would assume Mr Lim would have an innate talent for tea-tasting.

However, in 2001, before he joined the family business, he “failed miserably” on a test his father gave him.

“My dad sat me down to taste 50 teas at one go. But they all tasted and looked the same,” he said in 2015.

Now, of course, he can confidently distinguish the various types of tea down to the countries and regions just by tasting them.

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Image Credit: Lim Tian Wee

When he joined Lim Lam Thye in 2002, his first role was to learn the basics of the tea business, he told Vulcan Post.

“The most important skill was to understand tea and tasting it.”

As his knowledge for tea improved, he took on the role of assistant tea buyer.

“The first four years, I kept getting rejections from customers.”

Businesses wouldn’t stock Lim Lam Thye’s teas, even though they were good, because “it’s not hip” to put a “Chinese company” on menus.

“After hearing that so often, you realise it’s a problem you need to address.”

Mr Lim (leftmost) with his father (middle) and brother (rightmost) / Image Credit: Lim Tian Wee

Mr Lim shared that people often perceive the tea business as a sunset industry.

“My peers would often question me how I would do the business differently,” he added.

Working in an SME requires careful planning of limited resources and I have learned to be more frugal in my ways of business expenditure; forcing myself to be more creative in getting things done with less.

House Of Gryphon-dor

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Mr Lim at an event / Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

Having developed his expertise during his stint at Lim Lam Thye, Mr Lim came to realise that the business model was “not sustainable”.

He noted that the company was “too reliant” on clients who were starting their own businesses with their products, and they ended up having more competitors.

They needed to create a brand that can be sustainable in the long run.

With $2,500 that he borrowed from his father in 2006, he started up Gryphon Tea as a subsidiary of Lim Lam Thye with a simple mission of sharing better tea with the world.

He believes that tea is an integral part of Asian culture and cuisines and enjoying it can be an affordable luxury.

Put in silk bags and packaged in pretty pastel boxes, many of Gryphon Tea’s artisanal flavours are original blends created by Mr Lim himself.

The brand name is an homage to the griffin, a legendary half-eagle, half-lion creature.

His father drew it as a logo when Lim Lam Thye exported tea products to the Middle East in the 1980s.

Mr Lim (leftmost) with his parents and his brother (rightmost) / Image Credit: Lim Tian Wee

Mr Lim recounted, “Like all startups, starting Gryphon Tea had its fair share of resistance and challenges.”

“It was always difficult to convince customers why they should pay a little more to enjoy a better cup of tea and how their customers will appreciate the quality served.”

Tapping on his past corporate experience and expertise, he managed to build strong connections and rapport with suppliers, distributors, and industry decision-makers.

Gryphon Tea was well-received by the local market, as the gourmet teas were served at high-end restaurants, and hotels, and were stocked at supermarkets.

In the first five years, the company saw at least 50% in growth each year, but they took their time to expand.

Usually, embarking on a new vertical means facing new challenges, and it’s no different for Gryphon Tea.

Taking a leaf out of ecommerce giants like Amazon and eBay’s playbooks, Mr Lim decided to venture into ecommerce in a bid to widen the reach of the company.

This would give end-consumers all over the world access to Gryphon Tea’s products, sans the need for local distributors and the high costs.

When they launched their first ecommerce site in 2012, it only earned the company $80 in revenue in its first month.

He described the first site as “a little bit clumsy” with too much flash animation that hindered its purpose as a shopping platform.

But they overcame the problem and have come so far since then.

In 2016, Gryphon Tea reached customers in over 50 countries and 7.5% of its total annual revenue came from ecommerce.

Brew Of Relevance

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Monogram Tea at an expo in 2018 / Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

Mr Lim launched the sister brand Monogram Tea during Gryphon Tea’s 10th-year anniversary in 2016.

He explained that the Monogram Collection, its catalogue of tea flavours and blends, is Gryphon Tea’s interpretation of luxury and personalisation.

“[It is the] first luxury tea with customisation as its value proposition,” he added.

The Monogram Tea website is aesthetically-pleasing and easy to navigate, allowing customers to easily choose the flavours they want to layer with.

Product descriptions come with helpful graphs to help customers envision the taste of their layered tea and tips on how to best brew that cuppa.

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Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

The tea connoisseur seems proud of what he has created over the years as he told the Business Times (BT) that they have “led the industry in product innovation”.

By 2016, Gryphon Tea had racked up 25 Great Taste Awards in the United Kingdom as well as accumulated a number of local and regional accolades.

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Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr Lim shared that in 2017, Gryphon Tea launched the first range of ambient Cold Brew Sparkling Tea using the same quality tea leaves from their Artisan Selection.

When asked how a heritage business like Lim Lam Thye have to do in order to evolve, he said, “I learned that to have an enduring business, we need to actively seek opportunities to stay relevant.”

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Gryphon Tea at Artbox Singapore 2018 / Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

“Listening to our customers and trend spotting is a key part of staying ahead of the curve,” he shared.

“Perhaps the way we consume tea is different than in the past and we have to look at opportunities that allow us to disrupt our business model and swim with the currents.”

Mr Lim shared that he feels the need to leave a legacy that lasts for the next generation of business leaders.

He told us to expect more ideas and beverages emerging from their tea lab.

You can find Gryphon Tea in various parts of Southeast Asia and South Korea, or order your tea online here.

Featured Image Credit: Gryphon Tea Company

 

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