Taha Bouqdib might have followed in his father’s footsteps to work for the king of Morocco had he not given it up for his first love – tea. Even now, after having been in the business for 22 years, he talks about the topic with the ardour of a man whose passion has not cooled. The president and co- founder of Singapore-based TWG Tea Company, one of the fastest-growing luxury tea brands in the world, reveals that he would occasionally retreat to a private workshop behind his office to concoct some fashionable tea blend.
The room is lined with TWG Tea’s signature canary-yellow canisters of tea, a waist-height copper spittoon into which he discards his experiments, a sink, water hose and jars of premium ingredients – Arabic gum, marigold, jasmine and dried rosebuds from Grasse, a town in France famous for growing flowers for perfume. “You’re one of the first outside of the company to see this room,” he says during the tour, adding that he frequently retreats to this inner sanctum to relax or think.
Located on the fifth floor of King’s Centre, it overlooks the Singapore River, along which tea was once plied and traded, the location a deliberate decision by the founders.
Bouqdib is sharing a sofa with me now, in his office proper, one leg tucked under his knee, as if he is having a tete-a-tete with a friend. Despite his hectic schedule – he flew in from Paris the night before – a smile is perpetually on his lips, and he speaks lucidly in measured tones. And, unlike most high-profile personalities, he prefers not to be accompanied by minders during interviews, not even his wife, Maranda Barnes, who is director
of communications and business development for the company. This is a private conversation.
If one is taken with his gentility, Bouqdib, who’s French of Moroccan descent, has his upbringing to thank. His father, who was head of security operations for the Moroccan king, instilled in him values of discipline, hard work and respect, while his mother, who worked for the embassy, helped him to learn diplomacy, empathy and social communication.
“I believe your childhood is very important. It shapes the kind of person you become,” says the 44-year-old.
These deeply rooted values, along with a devotion to his craft, are undoubtedly key to the phenomenal success of TWG Tea, which he founded with Hong Kong-born Indian businessman Manoj Murjani in 2007. It now has an annual turnover of over US$50 million (S$63 million). Its teas are distributed in 42 countries and it has 27 stores worldwide, with another 12 scheduled to open before the end of the year.
THE START OF THE AFFAIR
Living in Morocco, Bouqdib had his first taste of green tea at the age of 12, a gift from the Chinese Embassy near his home. He remembers finding the toasted taste of the drink strange, as the beverage is typically drunk in Morocco with an infusion of fresh mint and a lot of sugar.
It was only later, when a friend recommended him for a job at a French tea company, that he fell head over heels.
Bouqdib recalls the moment when he first stepped into the warehouse: “I was amazed by the different flavours. I felt I had entered into a world that’s mine.”
It was a coup de foudre, he says, meaning “love at first sight”, or literally, a lightning bolt. “I knew that this was the product I would work with for the rest of my life.”
The then 23-year-old international-law student was so convinced that he defied family tradition – his father had worked for the king, and now so do four of his siblings – and ventured into the tea business.
“Palace work was interesting but it was not in my destiny. When it’s not your destiny, it’s not your destiny,” he says simply in the softened English
of one who grew up speaking French and Arabic.
During the 15 years that he worked at the French tea company, Bouqdib learnt everything he could about the industry. He never felt like an employee and spent his holidays visiting plantations in India and Japan with his own money, to the bemusement of his colleagues.
A chance meeting of minds with Murjani at a Parisian teahouse in 2004 led to a friendship and a great deal of discussion over the next two years about creating something revolutionary in the tea industry. They wanted to make tea an affordable indulgence; one that is associated with high-end fashion and a luxurious lifestyle.
It was fortunate then that in 2007, when Bouqdib first visited Singapore, where Murjani was based, he fell in love with it immediately. “I made my decision during the journey from the airport to the city. I was amazed by the beautiful flowers in the middle of the road and I knew that this place was ready for what we wanted to do.”
THE RISE AND RISE OF TWG TEA
The pair set up three factories and one large central kitchen from the get-go. Says Bouqdib: “From day one, we never built this for just one city. We planned for a global brand. We knew exactly what we were doing.”
While the company is barely six years old, the people behind it have several decades of experience combined. Bouqdib himself has worked with teas for more than two decades and knows the tea business inside out. Its managing director is a restaurant-management specialist with over 25 years in the industry, while its executive chef has been in the patisserie business for more than 30 years and has a cult following in France.
Indeed, despite opening the first store in 2008 in the middle of the financial crisis, the business took off and it sold 650 tonnes of tea in the first year. Bouqdib believes this is because tea is an “affordable luxury”. A designer handbag may be extravagant during a downturn, but a cup of tea can be enjoyed for a few dollars.
The company strives to set itself apart from other tea brands by staying fresh and fashionable. Bouqdib personally ensures that the company is constantly changing and innovating, and travels widely to seek inspiration for new ideas.
As the creative eye behind the company’s concepts, packaging and interior design, he visits fashion capitals around the world and attends couture shows to discover the latest trends, colours and styles. He then incorporates them into TWG Tea’s packaging and design to raise its appeal among young, modern tea drinkers.
A master tea blender, he visits cafes and patisseries for ideas on how to work with different ingredients, such as cinnamon, orange or chocolate, and how to use them to fashion new blends of teas. The result: TWG Tea has a staggering variety of single-estate fine-harvest teas and exclusive blends – more than 800 to date – and unveils at least 50 new teas each year.
“I need to absorb everything like a sponge and then I go back, squeeze everything out, and start again,” says Bouqdib, who believes it is imperative to keep an ear to the ground. “I want to know and feel what the market is looking for. We need to stay ahead and to build a brand that people feel belongs to them.”
The privately owned company has been repeatedly courted by global corporations, but eventually partnered lifestyle giant Osim International, which holds a 45 per cent stake in TWG Tea.
While some may wonder why it chose to work with the Singapore-based company instead of a multinational conglomerate, Bouqdib is convinced that this was the right decision. Besides being impressed by how its founder, Ron Sim, built his brand from scratch, he was also won over by Sim’s passion and straightforward ways. Most of all, Sim understood the importance of “moving in the same direction”, instead of trying to take over.
“TWG Tea is all about the personal touch. If you take that away, you’ll see the effects very quickly,” says Bouqdib. “I believe that if we had decided to go with another company, we won’t be in control of our business.”
Judging from the company’s rapid growth, this has paid off. While co-founder Murjani has since left, resigning last year to spend more time with his son who is studying in London, he remains a shareholder in the business – a testament of his confidence in TWG Tea.
It is an hour into the interview and Bouqdib shows no sign of flagging, despite having endured an 13-hour flight the night before. He combats jetlag by adjusting his sleeping pattern to the time zone of his destination as soon as he’s on the plane. And the Patek Philippe on his wrist today, which features local time in 24 cities, is good for just that.
Bouqdib is a collector and not just of luxury watches, which he is particularly passionate about (see below). He would happily wander through crowded flea markets – “the heart of every city” – looking for antiques. Once acquired, the item would be incorporated into his lifestyle, not reserved for display or be stored in cupboards.
He has everything from vintage chairs to old Japanese bowls and teapots, and enjoys using them every day – be it with his family, friends or simply on his own.
“I hate to buy something and then keep it in a drawer. You might as well put it in a museum. When you use something, you can learn from it, feel it and find inspiration from it. The product should serve you, not the other way around,” he says, adding that he had to convince his wife to do the same. She now shares his passion for using and enjoying their collection of antiques.
This practicality is also why Bouqdib wears only Dior suits. It has nothing to do with the brand, he insists. They simply fit him well and he likes everything from the comfortable material to the consistent quality and excellent customer service. For him, every detail counts.
He would love to have been born in 18th-century France because of the tremendous attention to detail that men and women in that era pay to everything – from their dressing and hair to their shoes. In fact, although he has visited museums in Paris and Versailles countless times, he finds it’s not enough. “There are just so many details to admire,” he says.
A GENTLEMAN’S CODE
But one does not become a successful businessman on love for art and culture alone. Bouqdib also means business and runs a tight ship. His strict upbringing had inculcated in him a deep sense of respect for rules and discipline. The important position that his father held meant that he and his family were always under public scrutiny.
“We could never do anything bad, even if it was something small, like crossing the road when the traffic light’s red,” recalls Bouqdib. “My father was like a lion in the forest. He was extremely strict, like a policeman. For him, black is black and white is white.”
It also meant that he expected the best from his children, even giving the royal military-school that his son attended strict instructions to show him no mercy during his training. While it was tough, Bouqdib is thankful for the experience.
“I’m very happy because I can take what I learnt and use it in my business. Without discipline, there will be many holes, even if things seem to be running well. You’ll never be safe. But with discipline, you have control and you can sleep without doubts.”
This code of ethics shapes the way he runs the company. Bouqdib is particular about punctuality and loathes paying suppliers late. He believes in upholding standards in all areas, even dress code, and was appalled when he saw drivers arriving for work in T-shirts and jeans. “How can a gentleman dress like that? Discipline is important, even if you’re not meeting customers.”
He himself is perpetually in a suit but, perhaps, a better hint of his gentility lies in his easy grace. He treats others with respect, looking them in the eye and giving them undivided attention, as he’s doing with me, despite several interruptions. The only time he gets angry with his staff, he says, is when they try to cover up a mistake and troubleshoot it themselves. Even then, he doesn’t raise his voice or put them down, preferring to remain calm and think things through – with a cup of tea in hand.
“When you face a problem, you need to calm down, take things step by step and manage the stress. If it controls you, you can’t think properly or make the right decisions,” he says, and adds that drinking tea cultivates patience, as it takes time to steep a cup of tea.
Clearly, he is made for this business. It is, and always will be, his first love. He declares that he will never sell his shares in the company; on the contrary, he wants to buy more, adding half-jokingly that if his partners ever consider selling their stake, he will be waiting with his chequebook. That’s understandable – when you’re in love, it’s hard to share.