Posted: March 29, 2010
Executive edge: Barry Cooper
It's always tea time for this East African nativeBy Lynn Bronikowski
Barry Cooper, founder and CEO of Cooper Tea Co., traces his 40-year passion for the tea industry to his childhood in Kenya, East Africa - a place that tugs so deep at his heart that today he refers to himself as "a white African American."
That may sound politically incorrect, he admits, but "Africa gets in your blood; it's home," he says of the tea-producing highlands where he grew up.
"Tea always struck me as a very elegant and gentlemanly profession," Cooper said while pouring hot tea from a porcelain teapot in his office at Cooper Tea's Boulder-based headquarters. "There were these massive rolling hills, the rhythm of the workers, the tea-producing and management of the tea estates all coming together to be sure the process worked. Tea producers had a good life - plus, they always had the best views of Africa from their high-growth areas."
After a stint as a hard-driven newspaper reporter in Nairobi, Kenya, and England, Cooper would go to work for Lipton in London, where at the first sight of a tasting room, his lifelong romance with tea began.
At age 23, he would move to Uganda to set up a tea trade network - unflinching over the prospect of danger amid political unrest.
"I even worked the fields in Uganda so I could understand the daily routine of the tea growers so they knew I wasn't some fly-by-night," Cooper said. "They knew that I understood the difficulties they were facing from a firsthand basis."
It was there that Cooper's entrepreneurship would surface - a drive that would lead to his four patents for tea preparation and manufacturing and put his flagship B.W. Cooper's Iced Brew Tea in more than 10,000 locations, from 7-Eleven stores to fine dining restaurants.
"I believe entrepreneurs are simply born; the instinct is there," said Cooper, 65, who founded SNA Tea Co., a private-label tea company with ownership in tea packaging facilities and more than 40 tea plantations. "There's this desire to be independent. It's an engine within you, and it drives you."
He couldn't believe he actually got paid to do what he loved and ultimately received a phone call from Celestial Seasonings, which during its early days he says was "hippie heaven." He became an owner, investor and manager when the company went through a leveraged buyout in 1988.
"My time at Celestial Seasonings was absolutely phenomenal," Cooper said. "I learned about the markets, P&Ls, direct and indirect costs. I learned how to structure a business, and that was even more critical than being a good taster and having all my industry contacts."
In 1999, 7-Eleven challenged Cooper to create an ice-tea brew - a trade secret that would take four years of research and development and put his face on fountain dispensers across the country.
"It was a long process, but I found that I had this extraordinary product, and for the first time restaurants could serve really good tea in a concentrate form," said Cooper, who recently developed an organic concentrate.
In 2009, sales were flat. In 2010, he projects 15 percent to 20 percent growth, as the restaurant industry rebounds and schools look for healthy alternatives to soft drinks - fueled by Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity. Cooper products are in the Cherry Creek School District, and he predicts others will follow.
"It's our time," said Cooper, coming off of publishing "Silver Spoons, Mad Baboons and Other Tales of Tea," about his life as a tea master.
"Writers don't choose to write; they have to write," he said. "This world we live in has made it extraordinarily easy to become a workaholic. You have to discipline yourself to step back from it and tell yourself - ‘I deserve to do this, indulge in my passions.'"
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.