John Harney is a man with a passion for business. He also has an all-consuming passion for selling tea but, having known him for more than 20 years, I suspect that whatever he had ended up doing with his life, he would have done it with the same commitment, hard work, energy, and passion. Everything about John Harney – the way he has built and runs his company, the way he has nurtured his family, the wonderful way he behaves with everybody he meets, and the way he always takes a positive attitude – exudes a sense of energy, total involvement, and a determination to do things right and do things better than best.
More than 25 years ago, John was running the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Connecticut with his wife Elise. In the same town lived and worked an English tea dealer by the name of Stanley Mason who persuaded John to serve his teas at the inn. A coffee drinker in those days who knew nothing about tea, John insisted that if Mason supplied the tea, he must also teach White Hart staff how to brew and serve it correctly. John was surprised when guests enthusiastically started asking him about the teas and decided he had better learn a bit more himself. He says he learnt everything he knows about tea from Stanley Mason but he has gone on seeking out new information, never accepting that he had reached the level of ‘expert’. He has been a leading light, showing so many others the way, forging ahead, always seeking to do better, achieve more, meet the next challenge.
In 1967, upon Mason’s recommendation, the White Hart switched from teabags to loose leaf teas and when Mason decided to retire, he offered John his tea company. The rest is history. Harney & Sons started in the basement of John and Elise’s house, moved upstairs to a larger room when space grew tight, expanded into a factory in Salisbury as the business grew, and now occupies a vast blending and packing factory and office complex in Millerton, New York State.
Having established the thriving but small company, John has among the first to realize that if you wanted to sell more tea, you had to educate the customers. Every successful tea retailer knows that today but back in the 1990s, it was a very different story and one of the reasons why everything has changed is the early pioneering work of Harney & Sons.
Not only did John Harney decide he had to educate the customer and raise awareness among the public, he knew that he had to make a bigger splash and he did that as one of the lead organizers of the first ever tea conference on the east coast in the early 1990s. The event attracted a small group of aficionados but by the second, numbers began to grow. He now brought in speakers from tea regions around the world, the tea brokers who helped him buy his increasingly wide selection of teas, researchers who could speak on tea history, magazine publishers who wanted to write articles about tea, chefs who cooked with tea, poets who wrote lyrically about tea and tea shop owners who were thrilled to be involved in this exciting new movement. John created such a buzz of energy, such a sense that anything was possible, that we all wanted to be a part of the Harney tea revolution.
I have been at events in various parts of the U.S. when John has braved hurricanes and power cuts, travelled vast distances, jumped on and off planes and driven miles to be at a tea event in a tiny town far from home. He says that all his support of new tea lovers, teashops, tea event organizers, and tea educators is just about selling more tea but I know it goes deeper than that. He loves to be involved but he also loves to help, to encourage, to facilitate, and everyone who has ever come into contact with him has drawn inspiration, enthusiasm, guidance and knowledge from his kindness and willingness to help. He makes them feel as if they are almost a part of his tea family.
Family is of huge significance to John. The aspect of his business that he is proudest of is having built a truly family business that now involves three generations – sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren all of whom play a significant role in selecting, selling and promoting the teas, in design and public relations, and in running the family shops and restaurants in Millerton New York State and Soho, New York.
Nothing ever seems to have daunted John Harney. When it came to promoting sales of his teas in Britain, he didn’t just aim to get his teas into food halls and department stores. He went right to the top, marched straight in ahead of British tea companies and ended up packing teas for the Historic Royal Palaces of Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, The Tower of London, The Banqueting House and Kew Palace.
A firm conviction that his teas are the best and a steely nerve have always given him the confidence to try anything and he takes everything in his stride. He never appears stressed, always seems to be enjoying the next stage of the company’s growth, and simply dismisses difficult moments (such as a minor heart attack on the first day of one of his conferences in the 1990s – which did not keep him away from the activity for more than a day – and a major flood at the Millerton factory not long after it opened) with a hearty laugh and a philosophical shrug of the shoulders. Conversations with him are always fun, no matter how serious the topic, and he always makes you laugh. And laughter is almost as good for you as drinking tea!