An Interview with Mr. Jem McDowall
In our continuing series of interviews with STI’s Advisory Board, we talk this week to Jem McDowall, its current Chair and the nominated Board representative of the Tea Association of the US to its STI Advisory Board.
STI: Jem – let’s start with the basics. Can I assume from your accent that you grew up and attended school in England?
Jem: Yes – I went to school in Bath (120 miles west of London), home of Sally Lunn and Jane Austen; it’s a 2000-year-old Roman spa city.
STI: You’ve had a long career in the world of tea. How did you get started?
Jem: Rather serendipitously in fact! I graduated from university in June 1984 and was looking around for marketing jobs. (Note to millennials – it wasn’t so easy in the early 1980s either…) I came across a small ad. for a tea manager – the phrase “international travel” leapt from the page, so, I thought, why not? I applied and after some more coincidental good fortune was interviewed and got the job.
Oddly, despite no thoughts whatsoever of joining the tea industry when I was in school, my bachelor’s degree in Food Marketing had included a segment on the tea and coffee businesses.
STI: So how did your career unfold from there?
Jem: I joined Lipton in London in 1984 and spent a short time there before going to Colombo, Sri Lanka for two years. I then went on to head up the Lipton Malawi trading office for four years. (And I spent 9 months in London in between – three continents and four homes in less than a year!). In all of these positions, I purchased tea for the Lipton (& Brooke Bond) tea packing factories around the world.
In 1993, still with Lipton/Unilever, I returned to UK to take up a role as technical manager in UEI (their new market-development company). We proceeded to launch new tea products in places as far apart as Morocco, Israel, Syria, Kenya, Iran and Kazakhstan amongst other locations.
(Tasting in Kirkoswald Factory, September 1986)
STI: Wow! That’s an interesting group of places! What kinds of teas did you introduce?
Jem: Unilever was interested in introducing locally tailored products (such as Gunpowder in Morocco, or Chun Mee in Uzbekistan) to develop the Lipton brand. My function was to help analyze the market and either find or develop tea blends that were better than the local competition and which reflected the brand values and local tastes.
(Lipton still going in Iran!)
STI: After all that travel, where did you land next?
Jem: I returned to my “roots” by then taking up a position as the Unilever (Brooke Bond) tea estates sales broker, responsible for selling the tea estate production, for three years. By then, opportunities within the organization were waning and the things I had enjoyed about the company when I first joined were changing. So I moved to New York in January 2000 to take up a wonderful opportunity with Universal Commodities. I’ve been there for the past 16 years.
STI: What do you like best about your job?
Jem: I learn something new every single day.
STI: Can you share some recent examples with us?
Jem: Every day you taste a new tea – even when from the same factory the tea tastes slightly different. There are constant evolutionary and often imperceptible changes happening all the time in the industry. And there’s a big one we are challenged with right now – the US Food Safety Modernization Act or FSMA. We’re dealing with producers and ensuring that all their production processes, hygiene and paperwork are up to speed. Challenging times…especially for producers who have limited resources.
There’s another thing I love about my job as well. I also like the people I work with and those I have known in the industry over the years. There have been very few bad apples in this barrel! Sadly, we are losing too many “old-timers” too quickly and while it is good to modernize and welcome new blood, I fear we are losing some of the old-fashioned values that have made the tea industry a uniquely pleasurable place to work.
STI: What do you think is the most interesting trend today in the specialty tea industry?
Jem: In the USA? It is fragmented to say the least! It seems that every tea culture in the world is taking hold – just like other food types – and all with an American “twist”. Iced tea, sun tea, hot tea, herbal tea, tea bags, loose tea, high, middle, and low end teas, Ready-to-Drink – you name it, it’s here. It’s a tea melting pot!
STI: That’s a great way to describe America’s tea culture! Anything else?
Jem: I think there is a slowly growing acceptance of ‘you get what you pay for’ in tea, and that if you want something good and worthwhile, then it will cost more. This is a counter to the ‘pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap’ mentality and it’s giving consumers a much more widely available selection of good and great tea. It’s good to see a clearer quality distinction across the market spectrum. It gives consumers the opportunity to enter the market at many different price points or product formats. You can buy tea for two cents a bag or go up to $1000 a cup for the famous/imperial/hand-crafted types. This makes us truly like the wine market – it’s a good place to be.
STI: What advice would you give to people just starting to be interested in specialty teas?
Jem: Learn about tea every day; don’t ever stop tasting and understanding why a particular tea tastes the way it does.
Don’t disparage your competition – if they’re strong, they’re doing it better than you are and if they’re weak, then it’s an opportunity.
The tea bush is bigger than all of us and has been, will be, around for a lot longer!
STI: How did you become involved in the Specialty Tea Institute?
Jem: I am not really a board or committee pers