Michael Spillane: Building Bridges for Tea

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.

If he hadn’t continued in the family tea business, “I would have built bridges,” says Mike Spillane, president of G.S. Haly Company. “When I went to college I was interested in engineering and I’ve always been an outdoor guy.”

Instead of spanning rivers, his 34-year career has been dedicated to building connections between the tea growers and consumers. Spillane focused on importing quality teas and was an early advocate of marketing teas from leaf to the cup. He was also instrumental in establishing the best educational resources on tea in the world.

Spillane grew up in the business. His decision to stay with tea was inspired by the people he had come to know well. “I loved the people here and at source (countries of origin). It was a small, close-knit group that did business on a handshake. That made it possible to grow and succeed in an industry that is unique and magical.” It gave him a keen vantage point on the history of tea.

When his father, Edward Spillane, first apprenticed at the G.S. Haly Company in the 1920’s, tea was one of many commodities in their import brokerage along with coffee, soybeans and spices. “My father really loved tea. Especially Japanese green tea,” says Mike. His father eventually bought G.S. Haly in 1930 and transformed it to brokering only tea.

“Dad worked six to seven days a week, dealing mostly with the large companies. There weren’t small retailers back then,” he recalls.

It was Mike’s mother, Marie Spillane, who took over after the untimely death of his father in the early 60’s. She moved the company toward its current role as importer/wholesaler and put them into a position to influence changes that were about to take place in the country’s growing taste for tea.

When Mike started working for the company, there were very limited offerings compared to today and little marketing, he says. “Tea was boring, monopolized by large companies. Then, in the 60s tea became fun. Tea needs to be fun.”

About this time new companies began blending flavored teas and were able to negotiate space on grocery store shelves. Then, in the 70’s coffee shops started adding tea to their menus and smaller tea companies emerged with blends of tea and botanicals. At that time the U.S. Tea Association launched a marketing effort focused on the many health benefits of tea. “Consumers started wanting their drinks to do something for them. They wanted it to be more than a beverage. It wasn’t your grandmother’s tea anymore,” says Spillane.

Mike Spillane and his parents were all pioneers and bridge builders during these times of change with both generations serving as chairmen on the United States Tea Board of Experts. The Board of Experts existed from the early 1900’s until 1996. During this period, some of the most respected people in tea met each year to set minimum standards for purity and quality. Spillane’s father also organized the Western States Tea Association in the early 1950s. The association, based in San Francisco, included growers, shippers, importers, corporate tea buyers and warehouse executives. Marie Spillane also presided over the association in the mid 1960s.

Commitment to Education

The need for education became obvious. For years Spillane had taught tea classes at events like the annual convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. As tea grew in popularity, so did the need for more focused events, inspiring Spillane to organize the American Premium Tea Institute. This group eventually merged with the Specialty Tea Association Registry and became the Specialty Tea Institute. He later served on the STI board.

Michael Spillane Judging NATC
Expert taster and NATC judge.

“There is very little opportunity for tea education in other countries. That’s why we have people coming from around the world to our events like World Tea Expo. Canada has a sommelier program, but that’s relatively recent,” he says.

Spillane is an historian who has compiled a rich narrative for his firm and the role of the tea merchants that have shaped the industry. “We’re not going to be around forever,” he says, bowing to the wisdom of the old adage; “To shape your future, know your history.”

Advice for Retailers

G.S. Haly enjoys a 120-year reputation for quality, integrity and support for their customers, he says, accomplishments that lead him to share these observations for creating your own success in tea:

  • First, you need to learn and share what you learn with customers. “This instills the love, the mystery and the mystique of the world of tea,” he says.
  • Consistency is critical. “Retailers with consistent products have the best chance for going the distance. To do this, you need to do more cupping and be more involved in maintaining standards for serving and selling a quality product,” he says.
  • Be observant. “There are opportunities in the industry. You have to keep your eyes open. Get together with people and listen to what other people are doing. If you don’t join in, you won’t know what’s going on.”
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Insights, Profiles / New Products, Tea People Profiles
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Babette Donaldson

About Babette Donaldson

Babette Donaldson is the author of the newly published, Everything Healthy Tea (Adams Media) and the series of tea-themed storybooks, The Emma Lea (Blue Gate Books. She has a BA in Creative Writing and in Ceramic Art from San Francisco State University. During her graduate work in ceramics she was introduced to world of tea. “Interpret Teapot” was a frequent assignment requiring research into the worldwide history and culture of tea. Studies of the leaf and brew were the logical net steps. “When I discovered the health benefits, I decided to devote my time to popularizing tea with children. I would like them to discover alternatives to canned sodas and thrive on tea gatherings with their families.” Tea Suite was her first tea business, creating a non-profit tea fundraising program supporting art education in schools.