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  Cindi Bigelow

Cindi Bigelow '86: Savvy business moves keep Bigelow Tea steeped in success

By Rachel Farrell

In her latest YouTube video, Cindi Bigelow '86, president of Bigelow Tea, goes to Boston's Fenway Park to meet one of her tea consumers.

"This is so exciting," she says in the video, looking into the camera with wide eyes. "I'm meeting Wally. I hear he's a huge tea-drinker. " 

Wally the Green Monster, the Boston Red Sox's mascot, lumbers toward Bigelow. He wraps his furry arms around her petite frame.

 "Wally!" she cries, embracing him. "OK, first question: Do you drink tea?"

Wally gives her the thumbs-up.

She looks at him quizzically. "Whose tea do you drink?" she says.

He points at her with both index fingers.

"Bigelow Tea!" she exclaims. "You're my man! You're my man!"

Bigelow has a name for this kind of video: "'Wow' marketing," she says.  "We only do [marketing] if we feel it's going to have the 'wow' factor." The 63-year-old family business also invests only in low-cost marketing campaigns. "We really put our [resources] in the product and packaging," Bigelow explains. 

Bigelow's business strategy may go against the grain — but so far, it's working for Bigelow Tea. The Fairfield, Conn.-based company has sales of $120 million and has been the leading specialty tea company in the U.S. for the past two years, beating out competitors such as Celestial Seasonings and Lipton. Sales of its original blend, "Constant Comment," are growing about 4 percent each year; in addition, its green tea and Earl Grey blend are the highest selling in their category in the U.S.

Despite the current liquidity crisis, Bigelow says that her business hasn't suffered. The company has grown between 4 and 6 percent annually for the past three years; produces in excess of 1.6 billion tea bags each year; has a $3 million international business; holds big-name clients such as Microsoft, Marriott Hotels and Harvard University; and recently expanded into channels such as natural food stores, drug stores and boutique shops. As a result of an experimental venture — partnering with AriZona beverages to produce three green tea blends — the company sold 100,000 cases of tea in six months. "That's a lot of tea," Bigelow says. "Believe me." 

Bigelow's grandmother, Ruth, founded Bigelow Tea during the height of the Great Depression. Gathering inspiration from an old colonial recipe, Ruth experimented with tea leaves, orange peel and spices in her kitchen until she found the right blend, and then served it to a group of women at a party. Party-goers told her the tea was a source of "constant comment," which later became the tea's name. With help from her husband, David, who had been laid off from his publishing job, and son David Jr., Ruth packaged "Constant Comment" into canisters and sold the product to local grocers.

Bigelow grew up watching her father, David Jr., run the business and, by age 16, knew that eventually she wanted to lead the company. "Every pore in my body wanted to run the business," she says. "It was what I always believed I should do."

To ensure that she would be well-prepared for this role, Bigelow enrolled at the Kellogg School, where she would often study for 17 or 18 hours straight. "Here's what I learned at Kellogg: I didn't know I could do that much," Bigelow laughs. "I didn't know any human being could do that much."

While Bigelow feels pleased by Bigelow Tea's success in the global market, "I'd never be so bold as to say that Bigelow fits in the 'global stage,'" she says. "The global stage is a lot bigger than little Bigelow Tea. What I'm comfortable saying is that we've put ourselves in a position where we can work through the current global and economic crisis very nicely."

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