[I rewrote this interview on a French radio of Sylvain Orebi, owner of Kusmi Tea and Løv organic as if it was made for a newspaper.
» Could you present yourself in a few words for our readers that might not know you?
I am Sylvain Orebi, president of Orientis, owner of Kusmi Tea and Løv Organic.
» Sylvain Orebi, how did you decide to get into the tea business?
I followed the family tradition of coffee and cocoa trading before founding in 1985 with my father and my brother a new company specialising in coffee and cocoa trading.
Our business flourished until the early 2000s when challenged by the large global trading companies and by the food manufacturers, we decided to go downstream and we bought a coffee importer in Le Havre., Olivier Langlois.
It had a small department importing bulk teas since the 30s and it was right after this purchase that I began to look at tea from a business point of view and after finding out that there were good margins in it, I decided to go there.
» How did you do that?
For 2 years, I recreated the tea activity with a B2B approach but then I found out that there was a business opportunity in the niche market of B2C premium tea but in order to deal with my competitors, people like Mariage Frères, I needed a name.
This is when I was lucky since a friend of mine bought all the premium teas available in the Bon Marché [one of the most famous department stores in Paris, Francehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Bon_March%C3%A9 – ed.] and among them were several Kusmi teas and I felt in love with the packaging before falling in love with the product and decided that I wanted to buy it and luckily enough, they were on the market but I didn’t know it at that time.
» Could you tell us more about this brand?
Yes. Kusmi was founded in 1867 in St. Petersburg by the Kousmichoff family but exiled itself in Paris, Avenue Niel in 1917.
The original blends that are still used today have been created in the 1870s-1900s by Pavel Kousmichoff, a real creator , and his recipes were further elaborated by his son.
However, the brand belonged to a couple who had it for over 30 years after having bought it to the Kousmichoff family and that were not doing much to develop it or to make something out of it.
» The brand seems to have been barely alive when you bought it. How did you change this?
It was a lot of work. I had to completely rebuild it from the ground; we started from scratch, to be honest, we broke everything, we worked on the quality of the teas, on the packaging, on the distribution concept in France and abroad, quite a lot on communication too.
Luckily enough the company still had the blending expertise and know-how in its workshops but I modernised everything, including the packaging, which was at that time done by hand.
As far as the communication is concerned, it was my first management decision and I hired a part-time press secretary specialised in beauty who thought that Kusmi was a wellness, a beauty product and it allowed me to be in the “nice” media, such as Elle, Vogue… These magazines were obvious media for our brand as 80% of our customers are women that are attracted by our baroque packaging and that keep on buying our products because they are really good.
» How do you sell your products?
It took us two years to completely rework the products and the strategy and then in 2005, we were ready to sell again.
The distribution was and is still made only in selected places and corners in the whole world, in towns like Paris, Kyoto, Tokyo… We also have five stores in Paris, one in New York, another in Montreal. Right now, I am looking to open stores in Milan, London, Hamburg and Munich.
» You also created a new brand called Løv Organic. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
I created new blends for Kusmi and one day, I decided to listen to the people who keep on asking me for organic teas, not so much in France but rather in Scandinavia, Germany and the United States.
We went for a new brand because a brand is organic or not but it can’t be both.
For the same reason, even if both brands are distributed via mostly the same channels, there is now a Løv Organic shop in Paris.
» How do you see the future of the tea market? When a company like Nestlé launches a new product, it means something, no?
There is something going on but I am not sure it is a hype because tea is a product that has been drunk for a long time in China, India or the UK. Even if in France, people didn’t drink and might do so now, I wouldn’t call this a hype.
People have a taste that is changing, they want to be good and tea is a wellness, a health product.
The market has also changed thanks to companies like Mariage Frères that opened the market, allowing people to find premium teas at a price that was not necessarily low.
» And the future of your company?
In 2011, Kusmi Tea should have a turnover of 20 million Euros and I think that in 2015, the whole business should reach the 100 million Euros mark.
I live on the other side of the pond but you had probably found this out thanks to my “strange” English.
I am a tea addict and I studied several (and I do mean several) years ago marketing, hence this blog, which will try to combine both worlds.