June 9, 2012

Never give up, never

Clayton Pine first commenced training as an international buyer for Bushells Tea & Coffee in March 1974. The years and career moves that followed included brands such as Andronicus, Nestle, Belaroma, Amgoorie, King and Robur. In 1993, Clayton started a tea and coffee trading business that would, in 1996, form the foundations of Pine Tea & Coffee, operated in partnership with Lesley Pine.

This is Clayton’s story – a story generally reserved for family.

Have you ever seen Maslow’s Hierarchy or pyramid of needs? The bottom of the pyramid is basic Physiological Needs, the next step Safety, next Love and Belonging, then Self Esteem. The highest point and hardest to achieve is Self-Actualization, where you are really in control of your life. Well, I sort of started life somewhere in the middle, and then life changed and I found myself on the bottom. My brother and I at ages 7 and 9 respectively used to sell papers every night on North Road, Caulfield in Victoria, just to put milk and bread on the family table. It was there that I learnt my first lesson in business, when a driver said he would pay me the next night for a paper. He didn’t, and my trust in people became circumspect.

It would have been easy to be smothered by a difficult upbringing in an impoverished home with 7 children, but I took a different road. I was fortunate to have a wealthy aunt, who took it upon herself to teach me the finer points of life amidst the old money aristocratic refinement of Toorak society.

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I came to Sydney at 17, after attending 17 schools in three states, found a sporting and social life playing for Newtown Australian Rules Football Club and obtained a job hauling bricks and coal around the St Peters Brick Yard, now Sydney Park.

There is nothing like hard work and burning the soles of your feet in a brick kiln to get your mind thinking about what the future holds, and my attention was drawn to travel. I was two breaths away from joining the Army, when a job appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Trainee International Tea & Coffee Buyer”. Now … that must include travel!

So, in 1974 Clayton Pine commenced a career at Bushells Tea and Coffee in the old Rocks premises in Harrington Street, Sydney. Visiting the restored office building today, you will find many of the original features in the renovation. The garage where Tony Oxley parked his Ferrari is now BREW café.

Each day, trucks would line Harrington Street filled with tea chests from the ships in port. Everything was break bulk cargo and no containers. The Tea Department was on the sixth floor administration level and below this was the standard internationally configured tea building, including storage, tea blending, tea packing and dispatch. Everything was lifted to the upper levels and gravity fed production.

The early days making and tasting hundreds of teas per day and learning the logistics of buying and selling was fulfilling. The Germans will tell you that tasting hundreds of tea samples every day for 7 years in a structured environment is required to qualify as a tea professional. I achieved that and built a library in my sensory memory of the thousands of tea estates, flavours, qualities, and seasons. It is not easy buying tea if you don’t know much about it. Unlike coffee, tea qualities vary immensely from one side of the mountain to the other – sometimes from one side of the fence to the other and certainly from one week to another. At the very top of Sri Lanka there are Uva teas to the East, Uda Pussellawas on top and Dimbulas to the West. Tea is growing all of the time and being plucked every 7 to 21 days dependent on seasons; whereas, coffee has a flowering period followed by fruiting and then the harvest and processing, which is a long process. And once plucked, the processing can alter tea in a number of directions. A good clean tea can end up fruity, fermented, green, over-fired or burnt, flat and empty, or fantastically flavoury, all dependent on just how good the tea factory manager is at his job. And of course, machinery will decide if the tea is CTC or Orthodox and suitable for tea bags or leaf tea. The relationship is by no means mutually exclusive.

I can go on all day talking about tea. This passion grew with the job. But don’t leave out the coffee. After all, I was buying 5,000 chests of tea and 3,000 bags of coffee per week for the old family company Bushells.

My first coffee trip was to Eastern Java in the mid 1970s. Today everybody thinks that Kopi Luwak is something new. But it has been around for a long time, though not generally known to the western coffee society. I first tried Kopi Luwak with the manager of a plantation, while sitting around a fireplace in his bungalow one night in Malang.

Looking back, you would say that Bushells was antiquated – and you would be correct on today’s standards. Running cables to the post office to send messages to agents overseas, using adding machines the size of office desks to calculate just about anything, installing one of Sydney’s first computers, which took up a space larger than most cafés today – this was the way business operated in the 1970s for me. Bushells even operated factories in most states and New Zealand.

Tea companies operated on very tight margins, and there was no room for incompetence or error. One learnt to be highly efficient, although the pressures often did get to us tea lads in the tea department. One day we had lined up about 20 kilos of bulk production tea samples for tasting, and at the end of it there was a fiery exchange with management. So what did Clayton do? He threw all of the tea out the window from the sixth floor into Harrington Street and took his off-sider with him to a long lunch and long weekend. It was becoming difficult to keep young Tea Trainees, as the world was already changing and not many would endure the long apprenticeship making hundreds of cups of tea every day. So nothing was said.

In September 1975, due to a “Rocks” heritage order on the building, we moved to our coffee factory at Concord. Over the next eight years, I learnt a lot more about coffee and instant coffee production, as well as tea.

Training at Bushells was comprehensive; I was sent to India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and in time I took on state and national management positions.

Then life took a big turn, when the unthinkable happened. My mother was killed by a drunk driver in Adelaide and subsequently, my wife Wendy and I inherited four children: 11, 12, 13 and 14 years of age. I would not have made it through those dark days without Wendy and her parents.

Life had been going so well and I was half way through my degree, but the economics of the situation meant change. After an explosive moment courtesy of my Scottish heritage, I left Bushells and joined Coca-Cola as a sales representative.

The experience was good, but it was better a year later when I got a call from Andronicus to join as key accounts manager.

They were good days at Andronicus, and in no time I was Sales Manager. Then came Nestle, who bought out Andronicus. I was offered a post in Switzerland to attend the Nestle University, but turned that down. So a deal was done with Nestle, and their generosity sent me back to college full-time to finish the degree. Offers then came in from everywhere.

After a short stay at Belaroma as General Manager, I went on to a challenging job outside the industry as Business Development Manager for Advanced Food Systems, a major player in catering and accommodation services. This job was demanding, satisfying, highly successful and probably not good for my health. “Sir Lunch A Lot” soon organised numerous successful meetings with leaders of government and industry. The Police Academy contract in Goulburn was a satisfying prize, as previously I had always seemed to be on the wrong end of a highway patrol decision.

Then the move to D&J Fowler, and I remember my wife crying as I picked up that job, as she knew of my passion for tea. D&J brands included Amgoorie, Robur and King teas, as well as Golden Crust, Empire, and Lion Brand flour and farinaceous products and of course, Munchee Snack Foods.

To further my career, I then took a position as Marketing Manager of the Australian Almond Co-operative, which included trading green coffee.

For the last ten years friends had been asking when was I going to start my own business. I had the broad experience, I had the degree, and I had the passion for tea and coffee. It was time. So in December 1993, I rang my old friend Tony Witham and asked him to supply a container of Brazil Santos Green Coffee Screen 17/18 SSC. The following year we had the frost, and the business did suffer difficult times due to some significant bad debts; but, heavily mortgaged, we managed to survive. In 1996 my sister Lesley joined the business, to assist with sales and run a tight ship.

It’s great having a business where you can test your own ideas, work with a happy crew and enjoy a passion for tea and coffee. And I still get to travel overseas and enjoy my other passion for adventure.

Pine Tea & Coffee is moving into an interesting stage of growth. We produce excellent product that is reflected in the 32 awards at Golden Bean and RAS competitions, and the award for BEST TEA in Sydney in the 2011 Good Food Guide.

If you are going to create a business, make sure you create strong brand recognition. Without brands, your business is not worth a lot. Silvertip, Bella Italia, 7th Heaven, Bungalow are good brands achieving some growth in the specialty market, but it takes good people, good marketing and funding to connect the sparks that generate sales.

And these days, make sure you have a good web presence and embrace that social media!

Hard work, keep you sense of humour, get some business training, don’t be frightened to try new ventures, even outside of what might be your passion, as it is good experience. Look after your clients, look after your suppliers, definitely look after your family, keep a war chest for a rainy day, and never give up.

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