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The world in a cup of tea

Jan 12 2017 14:14
Jessica Hubbard
Toni Glass is the owner and founder of the Toni Gl

Toni Glass is the owner and founder of the Toni Glass Collection. (Picture: Supplied)

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Since launching her eponymous gourmet tea brand in 2008, Toni Glass has grown the business into a veritable empire. Far more than just prettily packaged and curiously named tea leaves, the Toni Glass Collection, a finalist in the 2016 FNB Business Innovation Awards, seeks to introduce an element of health and harmony into people’s lives.

Having travelled the world in search of the best sources, and to learn from the world’s most knowledgeable tea growers and blenders, Glass is just a few steps away from becoming an international tea master. We caught up with her to find out how she turned her passion into a successful business.

What did you do prior to starting your own business?

I was trained as an art director and a brand strategist, and I worked in an agency for a year before opening up my own ad agency. I believed that agency life was stifling creativity. In addition to the ad agency, I also founded a media business that ran in parallel. I sold out of these businesses in 2005, and worked in outdoor media for a while. 

Where did the idea for the tea business come from?

My mother was a tea drinker, so I was raised with a palate for tea. I knew that I wanted to get into something that I was truly passionate about, and tea was something I had always really loved. 

What motivated you to turn it into a business?

I realised that people tended to drink tea at home, and very few would go out to drink tea as an experience (as they would with coffee). In addition, the quality of tea locally had been downgraded over the years, and I saw an opportunity to push for quality tea that was carefully sourced. I made it my mission to learn all I could, and travelled extensively to learn from the world’s best growers. It’s an ongoing study, and I have realised that there is a whole world in tea. There are more teas in China than there are wines in France!

How did you make your first sale?

It was very tough to get started, especially as I didn’t come from a beverage background. I initially went door to door, and blended my own tea in a two-bedroom flat. My first sale was to a coffee shop downstairs from my ad agency. 

How did you get funding to get started?

The business was self-funded, and I began by selling to restaurants, coffee shops and hotels. 

What have been the three biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome?

Education: people have to understand why your offering is different and unique; distribution: managing this is always a challenge; and staying true to your core offering as a business. As an entrepreneur, there are always new ideas and opportunities to get excited about, so you have to ensure you remain focused.  

Biggest lesson learnt?

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that you truly have the potential to change people’s lives. If you chip away, you really can achieve anything. Also, if you think you know it all, you’ve lost it all. You can never be too big to listen. As an entrepreneur, you should always seek feedback.  

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product/service from others?

We source from all over the world, and process the tea leaves in a very specific and natural way. We have kept the integrity of the leaves, and we essentially trap the wellness in your tea. We have gone back to the traditional method of producing blended tea in order to offer a truly unique, high-quality product. In South Africa and indeed globally, the brand is very uniquely positioned.  

Is online retail becoming a major part of the business?

I started selling online very early on, in 2009, purely to serve those customers who had experienced the tea in an establishment and now wanted to order it. This meant that I didn’t always have to rely on merchandisers, and I had created a retail avenue to serve anybody, nationwide. It does not make up the bulk of the sales, but it does trickle over beautifully.

How many people do you currently employ?

I employ 21 people, and we have a nationwide distribution network that also extends to Namibia. 
What is the best business advice you've ever received?

Always hire people you can hardly afford. People make your business, and the value they can add is huge. You should be hiring for where you need to be, not where you are. 

How do you stay motivated?

I find the motivation factor quite easy. I’m naturally very driven, and truly love what I do. I also find it helpful to sometimes look backwards, and to realise how far I’ve come. This can be a great way to stay motivated and keep going. 

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work/life balance?

I wish I had that balance, but I don’t at the moment. It’s on my agenda for 2017…

What are your goals for the business over the next three years?

We are looking to expand in the next 12 to 18 months, throughout South Africa. The vision is to take this business global, not just to Africa but also beyond into the US and Europe. It’s going to be all about finding the right partnerships. Ultimately, our goal is to become the ubiquitous offering in gourmet tea. We want to be top of mind in this space – first in South Africa and then beyond our borders. 

To enter this year’s FNB Business Innovation Awards, click here

This article originally appeared in the 19 January edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.
tea  |  entrepeneurs
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