Q&A with John Smith, Chair Tea Association of the USA

SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda — John Smith, vice president at Henry P. Thomson tea importers, was recently named Chair of the Tea Association of the USA during the 4th Annual North American Tea Conference.

Smith has been with New Jersey-based Thomson since May 1997. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese holds an MBA in Finance from Fairleigh Dickinson University and graduated with a degree in languages from Georgetown University in 1989.

The family-owned company, founded in 1912, has been active in the association since its founding. One of the firm’s principals is “to share our knowledge of tea with others and to stay at the forefront of the marketplace.”

On taking the gavel from outgoing Chair B.W. Cooper, Smith sat with Tea Biz to outline his views and vision of the association.

TEABIZ: The Tea Association of the USA was founded to protect the interests and promote growth of the U.S. tea industry. For several decades its mission was to serve as a “creative catalyst and vigorous voice of the industry in the pursuit of these goals.” The mandate includes a list of tasks that are continually evolving. As incoming chair will you share with readers two tasks that you view as the most pressing. Why?

SMITH: Earlier this year, incoming President Peter Goggi assembled a diverse group of association members running the gamut from major packers to specialty tea consultants to revise and update the mission statement.

The new statement reads as follows:

TEABIZ-TeaAssociationMission“I think the new formulation, while very close to what we had before, accurately reflects what we need to do as an organization. That said, there are two priorities that I think should guide all of our efforts going forward.”

• We need to expand our membership.

Our current members import and pack more than 90% of the tea consumed in the U.S., calculated either on a total weight or a dollar volume basis. Not a bad penetration rate! To achieve this, our efforts have traditionally been geared toward the larger, commercial entities that dominate the market place. We represent those interests very well.

“However, much of the passion for our product, the drive for new tea experiences and a deeper understanding of the product we enjoy so much can now be found within the individuals and businesses that fall outside our traditional membership. We need to foster an environment where these other voices are recognized and their issues and concerns represented.

“While differences in opinion will always exist, ours is the only organization that provides a venue in which these differences not only co-exist, but serve to bring the tea industry to a better place. As a not-for-profit, our only agenda is what you find contained in the Mission, Values and Vision above.

• We need to gather and maintain as complete a database as possible of all current and pending laws, regulations and standards that apply to our product.

“While a very tall order, it is imperative that we fully understand current regulations and their impact on our members.

John Smith

John Smith

TEABIZ: The Specialty Tea Institute offers the most comprehensive professional training program in the United States, teaching the art of tasting which is fundamental to operating a tea business. Will you share your vision of STI in the year ahead.

SMITH: STI does a great job training people on the basics of tea. We do not attempt to offer professional or business guidance and I do not see us pushing that agenda for some time to come. I would like to see STI become a bridge toward membership in the Tea Association. This requires adding value for members. I will be working to develop ideas in this area.

“That said, we are the premier organization representing tea in the United States. There are other groups and organizations that work with tea, but none serve as an impartial, non-commercial voice that defends the industry from both outside influences and well intentioned, but misguided industry members. My vision is to have an organization in place that needs no coercion to join. Whenever a tea professional asks “should I join STI?” the only realistic response should be “of course”!

TEABIZ: The Tea Association is known as a champion of tea’s health benefits. What initiatives will you undertake to enhance/maintain this role?

SMITH: The “Tea and Health” message is as powerful as it is because the industry stays out of the way of professional researchers. We disseminate scientifically sound information as it comes forward. Through the Tea Council’s sponsorship of the International Scientific Symposia on Tea & Human Health, we are able to facilitate the availability of peer-reviewed, solid research to the public. In order to continue the Symposia, we will once again start setting aside the necessary funds to cover the next event – likely scheduled between 2016 – 2018.

“This is another area where members should stop and examine the benefits provided by the U.S. Tea Association. The resources to organize a successful scientific symposium that has the full support of the appropriate scientific and governmental entities are substantial. It may not seem that a $250 annual membership in STI does much toward this, but every bit helps! If your tea shop, your consulting business, your speaking engagements benefit from the Tea and Health message, you might want to consider staying involved in its evolution and continued propagation by maintaining your STI membership and contributing toward the Association in that arena. Inertia will not keep this process going. Left untended, the bush will continue to grow, but the harvest will be greatly reduced.

TEABIZ: Members of the Association also belong to the Tea Council of the USA, whose mission is to promote tea in the U.S. In the past the Tea Council spent between $300,000 and $550,000 to promote tea, including specialty, mass-marketed, and RTD teas. Discuss programs and current level of funding for Tea Council programs designed to promote tea.

SMITH: Let me clarify that statement. Since the Bermuda accord, back in 1991, the Tea Council has spent its funds entirely on either the Scientific Symposia or on the Public Relations efforts that follow publication of the papers. Our PR efforts are fully supportive of the Tea & Health message. Clearly, this effort has paid off, as tea continues to be viewed as one of the healthiest, good for you foods that you can consume…

TEABIZ: Annually the Tea Association jointly hosts a conference with the Tea Association of Canada that provides an opportunity to foster open exchange with exporting countries. Discuss your view of the relationship between the U.S. and major tea exporters.

SMITH: The relationship between the U.S. Tea Industry and its major producing partners has always been strong. The tea industry as a whole is very collegial. There is a mutual respect between most of the participants and a noticeable lack of the cut-throat, anything-for-an-extra-cent competition frequently encountered with other commodities.

“That said, the recent increase in regulations governing U.S. Trade and the multitude of interpretations regarding those regulations have caused issues. I do not advocate a laissez-faire approach. Some rules are necessary. However, when I read phrases in legislation like “scientific and risked based principles,” I would like to see some indication these words have been taken into account. In many instances, that does not seem to be the case.

“In our excessively risk-averse modern culture, any form of disclaimer is immediately discounted. Most responses to proposed regulations exhibit a knee jerk quality that disregards principles based on a solid grasp of statistics, cost benefit or risk assessment.

“I digress. As the Association improves its database, listing specific regulations accompanied by any specific enforcement details we can provide, this area of tension should certainly decline.”

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