Jim Harron, Sr.: The Inspiration Behind Simpson and Vail


When we look back over the history of some of our most prominent tea companies, it is fascinating to realize that they may never have existed had it not been for an odd twist of fate or a serendipitous sequence of events. That is certainly true of Simpson and Vail, purchased in the late 1970s by Jim Harron whose early career path had nothing at all to do with tea.

Even when he was still a young boy, Harron always wanted to work in sales and started his career in the textile business, working for Cannon Mills in New York. He enjoyed the job but as time went by he found that he was travelling 60 percent of his time and so was rarely at home to watch his four children growing up.  Anyone who knows Harron knows him as a real family man who is very proud of his children and of what they achieve individually and together as a group. Since his job meant he was missing out on precious family life, he decided it was time for a change.

And it was at this point that fate intervened! Harron was friendly with David Walker, whose son ice skated regularly with Harron’s son Carl. While sitting at the side of the rink one day watching the boys practicing, Harron mentioned that he was thinking of leaving his job and that he was looking for a business to buy. “Are you interested in tea?” asked Walker, now so well known in the world of tea and who then happened to have connections with a mail order tea and coffee business. In his usual calm, modest and open-minded way, Harron admitted that he knew nothing about the subject but was certainly interested in finding out more.

So Walker introduced Harron to Simpson & Vail, a company that had started life as Augustus M. Walbridge, a green coffee business in New York City. Walbridge eventually sold the business to the company accountant Mr. Simpson and tea taster Lester B. Vail and they continued to sell coffee, bulk tea and tea bags.

“When we visited the store one day in 1978, the company really needed rescuing and resuscitating,” remembers Harron. “So, once we had tasted all the teas and coffee on sale, we talked through the possibilities, worked out the figures and decided to invest together and buy the company out. I knew I had a lot to learn about tea from David and so every Tuesday and Thursday we would taste teas together to build up my understanding.  I relied on him and on Nigel Melican for all the information and experience I needed – and we’re still really good friends all these years later.”

About a year after purchasing the business together, Harron bought Walker’s share and became sole owner.

Harron has always had a sharp eye for a business opportunity. He recollects with a chuckle that, as a kid of 8 or 9 years old, he made himself some valuable pocket money by collecting “any old ‘junk’ I could lay my hands on” and sold it out of the family basement. Perhaps at that stage he was too young to have yet developed the principle that has subsequently been his guiding maxim – to always offer customers a quality product at a fair price. He learnt that later he says, from Lester B Vail, and Harron’s ethics shine through in everything he and his family does. “I try to treat people in the way I would like to be treated myself,” he says, and the kindly, interested, considerate and thoughtful way in which he approaches customers, suppliers, and everyone he meets is testament to that philosophy.

Harron’s adventure into the tea world shows how willing he has always been to try something new, and his bold approach to life has carried the business forward by leaps and bounds. When he took over Simpson & Vail, the full range of teas totaled about 18 products. Today the catalogue lists some 380 teas, 100 herbal infusions, 78 different coffees and all sorts of accessories, and a range of specialty foods such as honeys, jams, chocolates, sauces, etc. The tea list includes some unusual teas from rare origins such as black teas from Bolivia, oolongs from Vietnam and Kenya, green teas from Sri Lanka. “I love having the opportunity of experimenting with new and different products,” he says. “And there are always new teas to try from all around the world. David Walker and Nigel Melican keep me informed about new products and we are always pleased to add them to our list, especially when the teas – like the Bolivian teas we now sell – are being produced by small sustainable businesses that have been set up to help the communities they are run by.”

Nor has Harron ever shied away from hard work. As soon as he had taken over Simpson and Vail, he set out with a determination to win back accounts that had been lost under the previous owners and to find new customers in local department stores, businesses, religious organizations, catering outlets, in fact in any establishment that might be interested. One local store took a tea rack from him some 30 years ago with 8 loose leaf teas and still has the rack today – but now with 42 different blends. He involved the family as much as possible in his work too, so evenings with the children would be spent not in front of the TV but around all the tea chests and packages that had arrived and whose contents needed sorting and packing.

Harron always intended Simpson and Vail to be a family business and when asked what he is most proud of, he says without hesitation, “the fact that two of my kids joined the business and now run it – Cyndi and Jim Junior act as co-presidents. Cyndi takes charge of herb buying and Jim Junior is tea and coffee buyer and chief tea taster. My wife Joan is in charge of all the tea accessories and I’m still working full time. We are all living the dream!”

And what about personal satisfaction?

Jim Harron, Sr. with grandson James
Jim Harron, Sr. with grandson

“When I look around the store and think what state the business was in when we bought it, I am just so pleased that we took something that was about to go under and managed to build it back to what you see today. But, with the interest in tea increasing all the time, there is still so much to do. We are planning to redesign all our packaging, and we need to keep looking for new products to add to the catalogue, listen to our customers, be aware of changing tastes and requirements and keep moving forward.”

It seems there is no stopping Jim Harron’s ambition and determination to build the family business into one of the most dynamic and successful tea companies in America.

Jane Pettigrew is a tea specialist, historian, author of 13 books and consultant to tea companies. She lives in London.