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Constant Comments: Cindi Bigelow

Cindi Bigelow has taken the family tea business to new heights with her company blog and personal management style.

Bigelow Tea, a family-owned business for more than 60 years, has always treated its employees like family.

"We like to say we have 330 families working for us, and it is that responsibility that drives us to succeed," says Cindi Bigelow (KSM86), president of R.C. Bigelow. "I don't say employee because we don't just employ that person. We take care of the health and well-being of their family as well."

The importance of family is a concept Bigelow's grandmother, Ruth Bigelow, kept in mind when she started the company in Fairfield, Conn., in 1945.

Yet there have been many changes to Bigelow Tea since Ruth's time. When Ruth started the company by experimenting in her kitchen, she created one flavor: Constant Comment, a strong concoction of black tea, orange rind and sweet spices.

"It was my parents, Eunice and David, who really branched out to put us in the different types of teas we now sell," states Cindi.

Today Bigelow markets more than 80 teas, everything from traditional brews, such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast, to herbals, such as Cozy Chamomile and Pomegranate Pizzazz — flavors that were unheard of six decades ago.

Furthermore, Cindi Bigelow has embraced the Internet, a sales approach her grandmother never could have envisioned. The company web site includes recipes and advice on tea brewing, and Cindi even posts company business news and sales updates on the Bigelow blog.

Cindi's efforts have helped make Bigelow Tea the leading specialty tea company in the United States. While the specialty tea industry has generally grown over the last decade, it has declined somewhat within the past two years. Bigelow Tea is an exception, experiencing strong growth in this mature market. Last year the company generated $120 million in sales, up more than 7 percent from the previous year.

Bigelow Tea also has an advantage over its rivals in the coffee industry because of tea's affordability. A tea bag is quite a bit cheaper than a cup of coffee, notes Bigelow. (A cup of home-brewed Bigelow tea costs around 9 cents, compared with coffee's price range between 12 and 25 cents per cup.)

Another reason that Bigelow Tea is so affordable is that the company spends sparingly on advertising. The company maintains a blog and uploads videos onto YouTube to help keep marketing costs down.

"We don't just advertise to advertise," she explains. "We only advertise if we feel it's a unique campaign."

The tea company's recent partnership with the Boston Red Sox is an example of such a campaign. In one video posted to the Bigelow Tea blog, Cindi meets up with the Red Sox mascot, Wally the Green Monster, to teach him techniques to make the perfect cup of tea.

Cindi, who is outgoing and playful in the humorous video, is obviously comfortable being the face of Bigelow Tea.

"I do think it's important we connect the box of tea to the family behind it," Bigelow says. "It's not just a box of tea on a shelf. It's a family product with 63 years of integrity, 63 years of commitment to the quality of the product."

Being part of a family business made it easier for Cindi to transition to the Internet to market Bigelow's products online because she didn't have to worry about jumping through the same hoops that other companies might.

"It's very easy for us to say, 'Let's give it a shot,'" Cindi says.

As a family-owned company, Bigelow Tea can also focus on priorities beyond profit margins.

In 2003 the Bigelow family bought the deteriorated Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, the only such plantation in the United States, to prevent the fields from being sold to developers. Today the 127-acre farm, a tourist destination for those who want to see tea being grown and processed, produces tea that is locally sold.

"It's still not profitable," Bigelow says. "It may never be profitable, but that's not the point."

The family's dedication to keeping the company's headquarters in Connecticut is also not the most economical, Bigelow admits. But Connecticut has a place close to her heart. Having grown up in Westport, she now lives "a whopping one town over" in Fairfield, where Bigelow Tea is headquartered.

"It is our commitment to Connecticut. That's where we live, that's where we want to live, and we don't want to move," she says. "All of us at Bigelow have a vested interest in being here, and we make it work."

— Alice Truong (J10)

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Cindi Bigelow
Kellogg School of Management graduate Cindi Bigelow, president of R.C. Bigelow, leads the specialty tea company that bears her family name. Her colleagues call her a hands-on leader.Photo by David Gunn