Export Champions: How I sell tea to China; Alex Probyn, founder of Kent-based business Blends for Friends, on the trials and triumphs of selling tea to China

Export Champions: How I sell tea to China

Alex Probyn, founder of Kent-based business Blends for Friends, on the trials and triumphs of selling tea to China.

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Alex Probyn founded Blends for Friends, which exports tea around the globe. He expects the company to increase its exports from 10pc of turnover to 30pc within two years

By James Hurley

7:45PM BST 30 May 2013

How does a small company from Kent go about exporting tea to China? By selling the “quintessential English experience” first, says Alex Probyn, founder of Blends for Friends, a tea maker that is enjoying a brisk trade with the world’s second-largest economy.

Mr Probyn, a former master tea blender at Tetley, said his six-year-old business is benefiting from the growing Chinese middle class.

“It’s hilarious from our point of view because, although we’re exporting good quality tea, it’s stuff the average Chinese person on the street wouldn’t dream of drinking. But in cities they want afternoon tea with cakes and sandwiches – really, they’re buying that experience as much as the tea.”Their variations on classics such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey do well in China, but elsewhere their blends are far more esoteric, ranging from Christmas cake flavour to drinks infused with rhubarb and custard.

From its base on a lavender farm in Shoreham, Kent, Blends for Friends sends its tea to “every corner of the globe”. Mr Probyn started the business because he thought he’d make “millions” selling bespoke tea blends to consumers to buy as gifts for friends.

However, that side of the business now represents just 2pc of sales, with the majority coming from blends made for hotels, restaurants and other tea brands. “We’re often the creative influence behind the scenes.”

The company sells some tea loose leaf but also makes around 40,000 biodegradable tea bags a day, with exports representing around 10pc of turnover. Mr Probyn expects this to grow to 30pc within two years and hopes to double its annual sales to around £1.5m next year.

Advice from Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce proved invaluable once exports took off. “From the paperwork side alone, it would have been impossible without them,” he said.

Exporting tea from China was “easy”, but going the other way was tougher.

“You can need 10 different bits of paper signed by ten different people for one shipment. On a product like tea there is a lot of protection. One shipment took us eight months. Every time, it wasn’t quite right.”

The company now has a local shipping broker, which has made exporting to China “easier but still not easy”.

While Blends for Friends has been helped by its local Chamber to “push goods out” from the UK and from UK Trade & Investment in destination countries, Mr Probyn says more comprehensive services from the latter would mean faster growth.

“As a small company, lack of support does stunt our growth. You can find agencies that you have to pay for advice, which is fine, but it’s hard to know who is good. A one-stop shop to point small companies in the right direction would be great.”

Greater availability of bank finance would also have speeded up the company’s growth, Mr Probyn said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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