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December 23, 2019

Cindi Bigelow: Failure to grow the family tea business was never an option

Cindi Bigelow, President & CEO, Bigelow Tea Co.

In November Cindi Bigelow, president and CEO of Bigelow Tea Co. in Fairfield, was honored with the National Workplace Lifetime Achievement Award from for inspiring people to develop good character and for her company’s sustainability efforts. Bigelow, 59, is the third-generation CEO of the company started by her grandmother, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, in 1945. In the 1960s and ‘70s, her son David and his wife Eunice built the company into a national brand by marketing specialty teas to a mass market through grocery distribution. The couple remain co-chairs of the company, which produces some 2 billion bags of 150 tea varieties annually and employs 400 workers. Their daughter Cindi was graduated from Boston College and earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business. After a stint in sales for Seagram’s, she came home to the family business at age 26 and worked in positions of increasing responsibility before becoming chief executive in 2005 at age 42. Of assuming the top position in the family business, she observed, “Failure wasn’t an option.” NHB Editor Michael C. Bingham interviewed Bigelow for ON THE RECORD.

Bigelow is not a giant company — 400 employees — but I don’t know another CEO with a larger visibility/mindshare per employee.

I take the potential impact I can have — both with my own teammates [employees] and in the community — very seriously. You have to understand that you’re always in a position to influence somebody, so you had better be a good role model.

What made you decide to become the public face of the company, and why?

When I took over [as president and CEO] in 2005, we had discovered via research that most consumers did not know we were a family business. So the emphasis [became] having consumers recognize that there’s a family behind this tea. That is why I decided to go out into the marketplace and share the family story.

It’s certainly a compelling story, but how does it make people buy tea?

I believe people want to know more about the brands they consume, and what better way to know more about the brand [of tea] that they’re drinking than by knowing the family and the ethics behind the brand?

What was the thrust of Bigelow’s marketing message before you became the face of the brand?

It was about freshness and the need for the foil wrapper [enveloping each teabag], because only foil protects the volatile oils [in the tea]. It was [also] about the plethora of tea [varieties] that we have.

In creating and building a company, your grandmother Ruth was really unusual for her time. As a female CEO in 2019, you’re less unusual for yours. How are you like your grandmother, and how are you different?

She was known for literally writing consumers personally — sharing with them a thank you, sharing a little story about the company. And to this day I personally write and talk to consumers all the time. She was really renowned for giving back to the community, very generous. She adopted a town in West Virginia and used to send down books and coats. I like to consider myself very much focused on philanthropic work. So we’re very similar from that perspective. She loved design; I love design. She loved the creation of [tea] flavors; I love the creation of flavors.

How are you different?

She started a business from scratch. The hurdles in front of her were so significant, I don’t know what that looks like or what it took [to surmount them]. I know it was a really rough beginning. I’m third-generation; every generation has different strengths. Management and leadership of the 400 [employees]; and [ensuring that] the 400 people are doing their best and feeling good about who they are is a completely different skill set [than starting a company]. That’s what I’ve been groomed and developed to do — but to do it with that same entrepreneurial spirit [that Ruth Campbell Bigelow had].

What’s your growth target for this company for your tenure leading it — is it a dollar figure, or number of employees?

I don’t think like that. My mission is not to have the company hit X number in sales; my mission is to ethically grow a business for the long-term health and well-being of both the employees as well as all the consumers who get to enjoy our tea.

Some people might assume that your path was paved with gold as the princess of the family business. But your parents weren’t like that, and maybe had higher expectations for you than they might have had for a hired executive.

Only three percent of family businesses make it to the third generation. It’s not always easy for the generation that’s passing the baton. If there’s ever any advice I would give to the generation [passing on the family business], I highly recommend that both generations look through the other’s eyes.

Easy to say; harder to do.

You need to get the older generation to really understand you and what your motives are, and you need to listen to them about what their concerns are. When you put all of that on the table, I think your chance of successfully passing the business on to the next generation is significantly higher. But you need to be really honest, transparent and respectful. It took [my parents and me] five years to have that conversation.

You’ve said you knew you wanted to run this company since you were in high-school. Was there a road-to-Damascus moment when a light bulb lit up over your head and you realized this was your path in life?

No. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do. To me, a family business is a gem. You are given the opportunity of a lifetime to run a family business. I don’t know if everybody understands that. But for me, I saw it instantaneously. You have a phenomenal healthy product, you have a wonderful thing for the family, you have a wonderful thing for the employees, you have a wonderful thing for the community. You have the opportunity to run an organization in an ethical, clean, kind, hard-driving way — why would I want to do anything else? Why?

Notwithstanding the opportunity to move the family business forward, you must have felt tremendous pressure when you took the reins.

Yeah. Even though I had groomed myself, and thought I had been groomed well [with an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School and four years in sales for consumer brand Seagram’s], and had run lots of different divisions [at Bigelow], it’s 100-percent different when you become CEO. There’s no safety net. It is 100-percent your responsibility. It will be successful — or it will not — based on you.

What would you be doing for a living if the family business never existed?

I would have a different job. I know that I would give it everything I have, and I would try to make a difference no matter what I did. I mean, I love coming to work every single day. I can’t imagine having anything that I would feel better about than what I do here. My parents raised me to be extremely naive — which was a good thing. I didn’t understand about greed. My father made a salary, but there were no houses all over or boats or cars. Everything he made went into the business, and I didn’t know any better. I would hear about other family businesses — how they used their money, what they were spending it on, how family wealth was the critical thing. Power and money can do things to people. But I had no idea about any of that. I just followed in my parents’ footprints.

Many people who attain positions of power and influence start to ‘act’ a certain way — to play the role of the person that others now seem to want them to be. You seem to have zero of that.

I work to act in a way that [employees] see that I bring 100 percent of myself into the business, and I want them to be 100 percent of themselves as well. I want [employees] to understand: I want all of you.

Describe your skill set as an executive.

It’s an interesting combination, almost a dichotomy, because I try to run the organization with compassion and drive. And those two things can be conflicting. I am always driving this business, I am never compromising, I am always going forward. We are doing our best, and [my message to employees] is, I want all of you every moment. But I want to be thoughtful about who you are, what you need and what’s important. So I am constantly balancing that compassion and drive.

You also are ruthless about not wasting time.

I probably have five balls up in the air at any one time — every word counts, every second counts. In this position you deal with a lot of incoming — from any division or any person. You have to be able to pivot and deal with it — while you still have five or six other balls up in the air. I would say that every second counts. Yes.

What are some personal qualities as an executive that you’d like to improve on?

I’m very feisty. I have no tolerance for B.S. I don’t like smoke being blown; I don’t like inaccuracies; I don’t like people taking advantage of people who shouldn’t be taken advantage of. If I sense any of those things, I can get a little too feisty.

You just received an award from How would people who know you describe your character?

Honest [laughs]. Always thinks of what is best for whatever’s in front of me — not myself. Not focusing on what is good for me is what I learned from my parents. If you asked me why I deserve the [honor] — if I do deserve it — it’s because I think of other people first. Always.

What do you understand today better at age 59 than you did when you came into the business at age 26, or when you became CEO at 42?

So many things. When you’re younger you can just be running as fast as you can to do the best job you can — just running with everything you have. And I still run as fast as I can. But you have a broader view of the forest as you get older. And as I’ve always told my kids, you don’t know the impact of your actions — you might never know, or might know in 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years. As I’ve gotten older I’ve really learned that, boy — your actions matter. Your words matter. You need to understand your role in creating a positive environment — in the community, or inside the company. Or inside your family.

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