How a traditional tea importer modernised its business to become a global tastemaker for younger audiences
Over the past 13 years, leading Singaporean tea company Lim Lam Thye has built a dedicated following among lovers of gourmet teas. Through a portfolio of award-winning sub-brands, it offers artisanal blends like Pearl of the Orient (a green tea with rose petal flavours) and the flowery oolong Vanda Miss Joachim. Its sought-after products are now available worldwide through online outlets and a network of dedicated distribution partners.
Fourth-generation business leaders Lim Tian Wee and Lim Tian Peng are carrying on a proud family tradition. Lim Lam Thye was set up by the brothers’ great-grandmother in 1918.
“Lim Lam Thye started out as a humble provision shop in Chinatown’s Hokkien Street, trading in Chinese tea,” says older brother Lim Tian Wee. “Then, in the 1970s, my father took over the business and grew it into one of Singapore’s largest tea importers. He also set up tea manufacturing facilities, both here and in Vietnam, and expanded into new markets such as the Middle East.”
A turning point that changed the business
By the 2000s, however, Lim Lam Thye was facing a number of challenges, including increasing competition.
“To grow, we knew we had to find new markets,” says Mr Lim. “We had to find a way to reinvent the whole traditional experience of tea drinking for a younger, more global set of consumers.”
The Lim family took the bold step of striking out in a new direction. It launched a portfolio of modern sub-brands, including Gryphon Tea in 2006 and Pryce Tea in 2012.
“Every generation brings along a new aspiration for modernising a family business,” says Mr Lim. “Our vision for these subsidiaries was to pioneer the adaptation of local Asian ingredients into unusual and innovative artisanal tea blends. We also decided to develop a range of top-quality Chinese teas.”
Discovering new markets
The Lim brothers had both studied abroad and held roles at leading companies before joining the family business in the 2000s. They had also been immersed in Lim Lam Thye’s operations from a young age. “As a teenager, I spent a lot of time helping out in the warehouse during school holidays as an ‘odd-job labourer’, opening wooden tea chests and blending tea with shovels for $5 an hour,” recalls the older Mr Lim.
Despite this wealth of background knowledge and considerable business acumen, the brothers knew there were risks involved in modernising the firm’s brand portfolio and launching the new subsidiaries. “It was a real departure point for the company,” says Mr Lim.
“However, Lim Lam Thye had always supplied beverage companies, so we knew there was strong potential for us to harness our historic expertise with tea and begin creating our own unique products.”
What also gave the Lim family the courage to take the firm in new directions was the strong conviction that a younger generation of increasingly sophisticated consumers was thirsty for innovative experiences when it came to tea.
“We have always done a lot of market research,” says Mr Lim. “My brother and I play a hands-on role, travelling extensively to restaurants, cafes and supermarkets to see how products are being consumed. We knew there was a younger audience out there that increasingly seeks authenticity when it comes to gourmet items. People also want to make sure that the luxury products they invest in really are of the highest quality.”
Growing a strong overseas footprint
The Lim family’s vision and hard work has paid off. In 2007, Lim Lam Thye’s subsidiaries made their first foray overseas when a distribution partner started selling their tea blends to cafes and restaurants in Malaysia. By 2014, the firm’s luxury products were reaching consumers as far afield as Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and France.
We dared to dream big and go for an international market.
The entrepreneur also believes a maverick approach is an important part of Lim Lam Thye’s appeal. “We’re constantly seeking to push boundaries in terms of product innovation,” he says. “That’s led to us creating unusual blends like the limited-edition Singapura Spice, a fruity green tea inspired by lemongrass, coconut and curry flavourings. We’re always looking to inspire people with our enthusiasm for trying new things and breaking down the barriers between tea and food.”
Solid support from a dedicated business partner
One reason the Lim family felt confident enough to expand overseas was the dedicated support they receive from banking partner HSBC.
“As our family bank, HSBC has seen Lim Lam Thye through each generational turning point, from traders to manufacturers, and now beverage producers,” Mr Lim says. “Then, when we launched our subsidiaries with the vision to reach out to new audiences, not just locally but overseas, HSBC stood by us all the way.”
HSBC’s wide network of business banking and international expertise have stood Lim Lam Thye in good stead as it grows, says Alan Turner, Head of Commercial Banking at HSBC Singapore.
With our vast business banking network across Asia, we have the expertise and range of services to support Lim Lam Thye with whatever it has needed to grow, from custom foreign exchange capabilities to digital transaction banking services.
Today, the Lim family is brewing up plans for further expansion overseas. These include finding a partner in China and setting up a facility there, as well as continuing to create new lines of innovative artisanal tea blends.
“As a luxury retailer, we constantly need to innovate, so that is where we focus the bulk of our energies,” says Mr Lim.
“Whatever the next chapter holds for Lim Lam Thye, I know HSBC will be there to help us accelerate our growth beyond Singapore and take the leap to the next level of success.”
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