Holger Lohs: Entrepreneurial Executive

NEW YORK CITY, NY

In a crisis enterprising executives see opportunity.

Ten years ago in the aftermath of World Trade Center attacks, commerce virtually stopped between Europe and North America. Uncertainty reigned. The Patriot Act made it difficult to travel and stiff new shipping regulations and food-safety inspections led to delays.

Orders for European tea plummeted.

Holger Lohs, CEO of venerable Hälssen & Lyon North America, among the largest and most respected importers, exporters, and processors of fine teas worldwide, was a senior sales manager at the time.

Based in Hamburg, Germany, his territory included the U.S. and U.K. Since joining the company in 1996, Lohs had established a reputation for winning customers face-to-face and then working side-by-side to develop their brands. He decided that relocating to New York City was essential. In 2005 he established Hälssen & Lyon North America, a wholly-owned North American corporation.

The decision was pivotal; today Hälssen & Lyon North America supplies several tea brands that play a major role in the specialty market, plus many smaller ventures. While revenue and customer names are a secret, said Lohs, sales quadrupled in the five years following the move.

Lohs has the easy-going stance of an athlete and his choice in sports includes tennis, golf and polo, which he had to give up when moving to New York City.  Lohs lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Imke,and 2 1/2 -year-old son (with a second on the way).

At dinner, entertaining prospects and clients, he demonstrates poise, humor and genuine camaraderie. He is fluent in three languages and is known for building strong customer relationships.

World Tea News visited with Lohs during the recent North American Tea Conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He shared his thoughts on success, his favorite tea and the fast-expanding retail market for specialty tea.

WTN: Compare the tea market in Europe with your experience in North America.

LOHS: “In Europe and especially in Germany you find a very well established tea market, traditional tea shops are all around and loose leaf tea is the preferred tea for home consumption. Foodservice supply is concentrated among a handful of companies, but it is changing as well towards younger consumers.

In North America, you see greater diversity of offerings in supermarkets and more “modern” brands. Tea is tea but marketing in the States is tailored to attract younger consumers. You also find greater variety in packaging. They range from cotton tea bags, high-end pyramid bags with a wire and a tea leaf, organic flavored and unflavored just to name a few. One would also need to mention the availability and large selection of ready-to-drink tea offerings.“

WTN: Tea merchants have opened more than 500 retail outlets in the past few years, bringing the total to more than 3,500 according to the Tea Association of the USA. Publicly funded Teavana (302 stores) and privately funded DavidsTea (100 stores) and Argo Tea (30 stores and 3,000 grocery locations) mark a significant shift and very soon Tazo, the $1.4 billion tea company within Starbucks will open its first store.

LOHS:  There is truly a shift to be seen over the last five to eight years in America. Today you find trendy specialty outlets in shopping malls. Argo tea reinvented the beverage in offering a tea latte to go, Tazo is opening a tea shop, Montreal-based DavidsTea opened five stores in New York City with four shops opening in the San Francisco Bay Area, three in Chicago and two in Boston and a growing number of supermarkets sell quality Tea. The consumer has changed, today there is not cowboy in California who does not know what a good green tea is. Ten years ago the typical tea drinker was 40 years and older, well educated, higher income, and most likely a woman.

Today there is no typical tea drinker, tea has all facets and is covering all facets and tastes. And most important, it is available nearly everywhere.

Supermarkets will appreciate the value of specialty concepts in the near future. They might be able to sell tea in the future to a clientele which is not considering buying tea in a supermarket at all as of today. Tea is hot! — Even when cold and of course very healthy.

WTN: Why has tea been a satisfying career?

LOHS: Selling tea seems real and honest. As a young sales manager I liked the international taste to it, the travel and being a first-person witness as the world becomes smaller. In tea you build your partnerships and friendships over many, many years in many countries and for the long-term.

Tea is the healthiest beverage in the world. It is very easy to identify yourself marketing a product of that nature. Selling teas is not like selling an expensive sports car — yet at the same time it is both rich in health and indulgence.

Everything I have accomplished hinges on how I “behaved” in the tea industry. I was determined to offer our customers — especially after 9/11 — exceptional service, something more than just supplying tea. I became involved in product development and presented new ingredients and ideas for blends. It was this desire to provide more service that led Hälssen & Lyon to establish a U.S. presence in 2005.

Tea to me and to most of our customers is more than a commodity; more than price, success has to do with integrity, honesty, trust and friendship which I value a lot.

WTN: Tea is personal …what is your favorite tea and why?

LOHS: I like my tea straight, without sugar or milk. I enjoy a nice Darjeeling every day. The aroma sends me to a calm place, even for just a second within our busy day.

I also enjoy Oolongs and other specialties; it is a good thing the tasting room is nearby. I don’t have to walk far to get them, the challenge is trying pick my very favorite among all the little treasures!

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