Growing sip by sip Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

Its executives are “ministers,” salespeople are “ambassadors,” retailers are “embassies,” customers are “citizens” and The Republic of Tea’s focus is on its product, from the leaf to the cup.

That’s why Minister of Tea — otherwise known as CEO and owner — Ron Rubin took his ministers to the tea gardens of India last year. Based in Novato, this 100-employee business doesn’t advertise, but earned in excess of $10 million in 2006. And even though its products can only be purchased online and at select retailers, business has quadrupled in the last five years.

Smart Business spoke with Rubin about why you should throw away the answering machine and how avoiding debt can help you grow your company.

Q: How can other CEOs grow their company?

It starts with an outstanding team: Hiring the right people for the right position. If you can find someone who has a passion for your product, your service, your industry, and then you put these passionate people all together, you form a wonderful team.

Today, you have to have a premium quality product, and you have to listen to your citizens. We listen to our citizens all the time. When you call The Republic of Tea, our minister of first impression answers the phone. If I had to tell anything to CEOs, it would be, get rid of all those answering machines. ‘If you want this, press button one; if you want this, press button two.’

Personalize the business, and take care of your customers. Have someone who picks up the phone.

It’s the way business should be done. It’s a respect for people and for their time. In today’s world, it makes you unique. This is where CEOs should put their resources — back into people answering the phone.

It pays dividends that maybe you can’t see [in] black-and-white on a financial statement, but in the long-term, you have a connection with your citizen, your customer, and they appreciate that extra expense that you’ve gone to, to not have the answering machine.

Q: How can executives create a brand without advertising?

A lot of the creation of the brand is just from word of mouth. We like to do product demos in stores, tastings and educational programs. Public relations is a key area for us.

With our tea revolution, we are just going about quietly, trying to get everybody to slow their lives down, and with our mission: Sip by sip, rather than gulp by gulp.

I call it ‘patience marketing.’ Basically, it’s looking in the long term. A lot of tea companies have been around for hundreds of years, so with The Republic of Tea, we take a long-term view to build the brand.

It takes at least 20 years to develop your marketplace, develop distribution, for people to be exposed to and discover your product.

Q: How can CEOs emphasize public relations?

It’s a mindset that takes discipline because the traditional method of brand-building is through advertising. That’s not saying that advertising is not beneficial, but the exposure of a product or a service through public relations is a key.

People are bombarded with so many ads and so much clutter that I just think the public relations aspect — people reading about or hearing about your product — is a better way to go than traditional advertising.

Q: What are your biggest growth challenges?

Growing the company, you need more ministers. We have a lot of people who are passionate about tea, but that’s a challenge to continue to add to our team. Then you have to reinvest in the company with new equipment to make sure that you can keep up with your demand. We have to continue to innovate and bring new products to the marketplace. We do collaborations with other companies; you take the strengths of two companies, and it’s like one plus one equals 10.

Q: What one thing can prevent a company from growing?

Cash flow debt. Instead of a sales goal — wanting to be a $10 million company, a $50 million company or a $100 million company — maybe you should think about being debt-free. That’s what I think about. It took me six years, three months and 15 days to become debt-free.

It benefits the company because, instead of paying interest to the bank, you’re able to use those resources to invest in your services, your people, your equipment and new products.

Q: What advice would you give other CEOs of fast-growth companies?

You have to innovate yourself and try to create something different in the marketplace. Listen to your customer better than any of your competitors.

Don’t look at what your competitor is doing; you are your own competition. Look for small niche markets or areas where no one’s gone before. Just be different. Go against the grain. Swim upstream.

HOW TO REACH: The Republic of Tea, (800) 298-4832 or www.republicoftea.com