First Steps of a Tea Entrepreneur

First Steps of a Tea Entrepreneur

After six months, Robert left to join Rolfe and Co., importers and grocers in Bourke Street West. In a lucky stroke that defined Robert’s future, he was assigned to the Tea and Coffee Department. There his job was to taste and blend tea and clear imported products from the Customs Office.

Fraser Ramsay, a tea agent at Rolfe and Co, took the 18-year-old Robert under his wing and helped educate him in both the art of tea tasting and the business of tea wholesaling. With access to the books, Robert quickly realised that large margins could be added by importing quality teas in bulk and repackaging and selling them on in smaller lots.

In 1881, Robert approached his mother and pitched her the idea of setting up his own tea business. It says a lot about his determined character that he knew he would be facing fierce opposition from 23 other tea and coffee merchants that were competing for less than 900,000 Victorian consumers. It also says something about an idealism derived from his family’s Celtic heritage – it is this idealism, applied to those in most need, that would later characterise Robert’s philanthropy.

Grace Anna was impressed with her son’s self-belief and business acumen: “If it is as good as you think, I have some money in the Union Bank and will lend it to you for a year.”

The enterprise was established with £300 loan from his mother, which was her entire lifetime savings. At the age of 19, having landed in Australia a little over 3 years previously, Robert established his tea and coffee business under the name ‘Edwards and Company’.

Many years later, Robert’s son Campbell reflected on his father’s bold beginnings:  “I remember my father telling me that the responsibility of having his mother’s lifetime savings in his trust was so great that he hardly had a good night’s sleep for 6 months before he paid the money back in full.

Robert did not have the marketing budget to compete with the entrenched tea merchants like Griffiths, who targeted customers with display advertising at railway stations. Instead he built up his business through personal customer service and carrying unique teas that others did not offer.

Robert began buying tea by the pound from his mentor, Fraser Ramsay. It was quite literally a cottage industry, as Robert meticulously weighed, blended and packed the tea at night in his mother’s Richmond cottage. The next day he was back on his bike, making deliveries, collecting debts and drumming up new business.

Outwardly things seemed to be going well. However the truth was that for as long as Robert bought tea by the pound, he was barely able to keep his fledgling business alive; the margins were just too thin.

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