For Cindi Bigelow, running a family business suits her to a T. Since 2005, she has been president of the Bigelow Tea Company, founded by her grandmother, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, in 1945. Still a family owned and operated business, Cindi presides over an operation that markets more than 100 flavors of tea shipped all over the world. In the six years she has been at the helm, she has also raised the profile of the company, forging relationships with Joe Torre, the New York Yankees, and Wayne Gretzky, while staying committed to community service.
The fragrance of tea permeates the company’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. And small touches throughout the building—hand cream in the ladies bathroom, flowers on tables, stuffed animals and family photographs on desks—speak to a woman’s touch. Dominating the entryway is the company’s first piece of equipment: a Chinese seasoning blender, the large wooden and iron apparatus that Ruth and her husband, David, used to mix the ingredients for their first tea, Constant Comment, still produced today from the original, secret recipe.
Ruth Campbell Bigelow’s story continues to inspire not only Cindi, but also anyone who learns about the beginnings of Bigelow Tea. The Depression took a toll on the family, with Ruth’s decorating business suffering losses when her wealthy customers could no longer afford her services, and her husband, David, losing his job at McGraw-Hill. In the 1930s, David worked on a variety of small ventures, but by the 1940s, it became clear that he and Ruth needed to start something new. Ruth, 50, and David, 70, were not deterred by their ages, but were energized by their business acumen and their entrepreneurial spirit.
Unlike today, where store shelves are crammed with a multitude of choices for everything from cake mixes to shampoo, in 1945 there was little product variety. Tea lovers had one option—black tea. For Ruth, that limitation didn’t seem right. Consumers, she felt, would enjoy a tea that was soothing rather than strong. Thus was born Constant Comment, the first of the company’s many tea flavors.
In 1959, David and Ruth asked their son, David Jr., to run the business. He and his wife, Eunice, saw the company through its growth spurt into the next century. At a time when so many companies have decamped to foreign lands, the Bigelow family is proud to package its teas in America. The company even produces tea in the U.S. after buying the failing Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. It is the only real working commercial tea plantation in North America.
“My parents are still involved in the business,” explains Cindi. “They really oversee the Charleston Tea Plantation, the buying of all the teas, and they are certainly involved wherever they would like to be.” (Photo above shows Cindi and Wayne Gretzky with Eunice and David Bigelow). Cindi, however, now bears the major responsibility for Bigelow Tea, charting out the company’s strategy and managing things day-to-day.
Trim and blonde, Cindi is the best advertisement for the health benefits attributed to many of the Bigelow teas. (Joe Torre touted the company’s Green Tea during his battle with prostate cancer, and the company’s website includes many beauty tips involving tea). Because of technology, Cindi admits that she often begins her day before 7:30 a.m., working from home, finishing at 10 p.m. before falling into bed. Yet in the middle of her busy day, she is cheerful and full of energy. She says she has just read a book review on Woman Around Town about mothers and sons and confesses she will soon face a bittersweet moment, watching her son leave for college. She is eager to show us photographs of her son and daughter, a student at Georgetown University. Family connections, whether business or personal, are obviously important to her.
But before we can sit down and chat, a tour of the plant is on the agenda. Al Pangrac, blending manager, leads the way. One of the first stops is the testing lab where microbiologist Lisa Feather explains that all 100-plus teas are tested in the lab for flavor and food safety. Raspberry Royale is being tested that day, and we luxuriate in the spicy, berry aroma. Outside the laboratory’s window, we spy solar panels and learn that solar energy now provides 20 percent of the plant’s energy needs.
For the second part of the tour, we are escorted by Jim Gildea, one of the company’s plant managers. We see the many steps involved in tea production, from mixing the various blends, filling and folding tea bags, and packaging the tea bags into signature boxes. As we walk through the spic and span factory, with shiny pipes on the ceilings and walls carrying tea to its next destination, we identify many tea scents, including cinnamon, almond, and anise.
Gildea has been with Bigelow for 15 years. “It’s a place where people want to work,” he says. “There are many things that the family does to inspire loyalty.” For example, after seven years with the company, a “teapot dinner” is held in the employee’s honor. To back up his claim, Gildea asks employees throughout our tour to say how many years they have been with Bigelow: Sandra, 7; Kenny, 15; Chris, 17; George, 22; Julie, 33; Ron, 32. “Bigelow is the best!” one employee shouts out.
Back in Cindi’s office, we settle in to talk about her own journey at Bigelow. Although she always knew she would work at Bigelow, perhaps the biggest gift her parents gave her was allowing her to come to the company on her own terms and timetable. As an undergraduate at Boston College, she took marketing and finance classes. When advisors told her she needed to round out her education in liberal arts, her response was: “Why would I want to do that? I knew exactly what I wanted.”
After graduating, she went to work for Joseph B. Seagram’s, first in operations and then in sales. “I was so happy when I got that job,” she says. “I knew that I would get to travel and would get great experience with a large company.” About a year and a half into that position, Cindi decided to go back to school and was accepted into Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, which at that time ranked as the number one business school in the country. She spent her summers working at Bigelow, finally coming to work at the company fulltime after earning her MBA.
While her grandmother started the business, Cindi credits her father and mother for the company’s success. “They are really the reason why Bigelow tea is Bigelow tea,” she says. “The real reason why we have 100 teas, the real reason why everything is wrapped in foil to protect it for up to three years, is because of David and Eunice Bigelow.”
Yet Cindi is putting her own stamp on the company. “There’s a whole bunch of kismets in life,” she says, noting that the relationship with Joe Torre is one of them. After Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he said in an interview that he was a green tea drinker. It turned out that he was drinking three cups of Bigelow Green Tea daily. “So this was the beginning of a long relationship and a whole new venue for us to connect with the consumer using people that they really respect,” Cindi explains.
When Torre moved to Los Angeles to manage the Dodgers, he continued as a spokesperson. “Now, of course, he works with the Baseball Commission and we’re thrilled with that as well,” Cindi says. “We knew that he was good people, we recognize his dedication to drinking Bigelow tea, and it doesn’t get better than that.” Bigelow Tea also works with the Yankees and the YES Network. During Yankee games on WCBS Radio 880, Cindi herself delivers the Bigelow commercial. In 2010, Wayne Gretzky signed on as a spokesperson, and Cindi says that there are other “game plans” in the works to forge relationships with other celebrities.
Cindi has fond memories of her grandmother. “She would have us over for Sunday night dinner,” she says. After dinner (“very formal dinners,” she recalls), Cindi was allowed to select a glass animal from her grandmother’s large collection. “That was my big treat and I just loved it.” Because she was only six years old when her grandmother died, Cindi doesn’t know a lot about the business side of Ruth Campbell Bigelow. “I knew that she would give you the shirt off her back, but she could also be very tough,” she says. “She could ride people very hard.”
What did inspire Cindi was her grandmother’s philanthropic side. Ruth Campbell Bigelow adopted a school in the Kentucky mountains and every year would send “truckloads” of shoes, clothing, and books. Going through the company’s archives, Cindi found a plaque given to her grandmother by the school. That award now hangs outside her office. “That’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart,” she says.
One of Cindi’s first volunteer efforts was raising $35,000 running an auction for Fairfield’s YMCA. In 1988, Cindi founded the Annual Bigelow Tea Community Challenge, a 5K Road Race, Walk, and Kids’ Fun Run that has raised a total of $600,000, 100 percent of the funds donated to local charities whose programs enrich the lives of underserved, neglected, abused, and handicapped individuals. Cindi also devotes time to Habitat for Humanity’s building projects and the Appalachia Service Project. Her commitment to community service has been recognized numerous times with awards from the Girl Scouts, the Rotary Club, the YMCA, Mass Mutual, and, most recently, Sacred Heart University.
Cindi also devotes time to talk with high school students, speaking to them about future career choices and encouraging them to make community service a part of their lives. “You don’t really need to know what you want to do when you’re in high school,” she says. “You don’t have to be changing the world.” But if students start with small projects close to home, community service will become a part of their lives.
Cindi tries not to overwhelm her own children with family expectations. “I see a lot of family business owners, and they all have these great plans that they lay out for their kids, which is fantastic,” she says. “My father never did that for me. He never said. `I need you to come into the company or we will not have a company in the future.’” Both of her children are proud of the family business, but she is following her father’s lead. “It has to be something that you want to do,” she says.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: I’m not a shopper! Couldn’t even make this one up!
Favorite Place to Eat: Easy—in Connecticut (Fairfield) Luigi’s, family Italian (LOVE THE PEOPLE AND FOOD) and in New York, just ate at a fabulous place Gazala’s, 380 Columbus Avenue, a wonderful Israeli restaurant run by a woman named Gazala. (She is also a total sweetheart and makes a mean dessert).
Favorite Sight: In Connecticut, Long Island Sound (especially in the fall), and in New York anywhere in Central Park.
Favorite Moment: Any moment I am with my kids—New York or Connecticut
What You Love: I love New York for its energy and Connecticut for its “green”—who doesn’t love the country!
What You Hate: I don’t hate anything.
Photo of Cindi at the Annual Bigelow Tea Community Challenge, David E. Johnston/Connecticut Post Freelance
Classroom photos shows Cindi with Dr. Laurence Weinstein, in his Marketing Management class at Sacred Heart University.
For more information on Bigelow Tea, go to the company’s website.