Louise Roberge

TORONTO, Ontario

In the past few years, tea has become a very important topic in Canada.  New tea stores are opening in all the major cities, new distributors are busy gathering new customers, certified tea sommelier classes are being run in several colleges, tea drinkers are trying an ever-widening range of different specialty teas, and overall consumption of tea throughout the country is increasing.

And those of you who know Louise Roberge, President of the Tea Association of Canada, will recognize that much of the dynamic growth is due to her commitment and drive.  She is the powerhouse behind the dedicated tea promotion that is helping to draw more and more people into the world of tea.

Before finding her way into tea, Roberge worked in the ‘Not for Profit’ sector, and was running the Quebec Skiing Areas Association when she discovered the tea world.

“I really enjoy a challenge and I think my strength is as a facilitator.  In that particular job, I had to get people working together, to approach their work in an entrepreneurial way, and to consider new ways of doing things.  If you want to get things done, you have to think like an entrepreneur, be your own entrepreneur, and I enjoy working in the business and trade environment,” says Roberge.

She soon found herself wanting to widen the scope of her work and she was just considering which direction to go in when, by chance one day, she was introduced to Peter Elmwood of Unilever who told her that the Tea Council of Canada (as it was then called) was looking for a new President.  He suggested that she would be perfect for the role!

She realized that the job would take her way beyond the world of skiing and tourism and would involve working with Tea Council members, government departments, tea producers around the world, tea boards in other countries, scientists, researchers, conference organizers, marketing bodies, consumers, etc.  She jumped at the opportunity.

But, she explains, “If I had known then all that I needed to know about tea, I would never have applied for the position.  I grew up in a tea drinking family but I knew absolutely nothing about tea.  I met Joe Simrany, President of the U.S. Tea Association and some of his members and I began to understand just how much I needed to learn.  And I knew that if I was to follow this through, the job had to really ‘fit me’ and to be in tune with my own passions and attitudes to life.  I quickly felt that this was going to happen and I realized that tea makes people feel good, feel well and that they benefit from the more mysterious spiritual values of tea and tea drinking.”

World Tea NewsRoberge also began to understand that tea is good for the developing world as well as for consumers in Canada, that tea farmers depend on consumers’ continuing interest in drinking more tea and she realized that tea is not a difficult commodity to promote.

She explains that “all you have to say to people is ‘I’m not asking you to give money; I’m just asking you to drink tea’, and if you do actually succeed in getting people to drink more tea, everyone benefits!”

Tea’s international connections have been a continual source of fascination, interest, satisfaction and stimulation for Roberge.  Not only does she feel that this job has widened her horizons, that she has learned about other, very different cultures, but that it has made her a better person.

“I think I see people differently now.  I am more tolerant of others and I think I view the world from a different perspective today.  I am better at seeing each individual as having their own special role to play.  Tea has taught me first to see the person and then, later, to think about what they do,” she says.

She learned from her parents to treat people with fairness and to see everyone as the same.  She learned her sense of leadership and sociability from her mother (she tells a wonderful story about how she left her mother sitting on a bench in Paris at the age of 75 to rest a little while Roberge did some sightseeing; when she came back, her mum was happily chatting away to a group of young people who had been drawn to her and had stopped to chat), and her draftsman father obviously handed down his skill in drawing up plans!

Roberge’s strength lies in her lack of ego and her ability to see and understand both the big picture and the individual role that smaller associations and companies can play as a part of the whole.  She has great clarity of vision which enables her to understand the present while also planning for the future.  She tries to ensure that the people and companies she works with are involved in the Tea Association for the long term and that they all draw value from that involvement.

But it has not all been a smooth run.  Just as the ski tourism work presented her with bumps and obstacles, so the tea world has had to cope with major changes in the economy, changes in the market, and changes in the structure of the Tea Association, and Roberge has had to adapt her approach in order to cope with the turmoil, the new pressures, and the lack of funds.  But, the word ‘impossible’ does not exist in Roberge’s vocabulary and she knows that difficult situations can be solved by lateral thinking and by putting the right people together at the right time.  Her optimistic take on life helps her to find the best, most positive way through.

Perhaps the most important development she has been responsible for, and one she is most proud of, is the establishment of tea education as a part of the promotion and marketing program.  She knows that by raising consumers’ awareness and by giving them fascinating information that really captures their interest, they will gradually change their view of tea and drink more, try more, pass their new passion on to their friends and family.

It has been challenging for Roberge to convince Tea Association members thateducation is an important and potentially very successful way to promote tea and she has had to show that although tea education is a slow and gradual route, it lays a very solid foundation for a road along which more and more people are now travelling, and that once they reach the intended destination of greater understanding, appreciation and love of tea, they do not turn around and walk back to where they came from.  They keep right on going – learning, tasting, visiting tea origins, trying new teas, telling others the good news, becoming tea teachers themselves through the schemes that Roberge has established in colleges and adult education centers in several cities.

Louise Roberge

Her long-term aim is to make sure that in the future Canada plays an important role in the tea world.  Imports are currently quite small but tea consumption is growing and the beverage is very much a topic of conversation throughout the country.  Despite financial setbacks and budget restrictions, the Tea Association under Roberge’s guidance is still strong and extremely active.  She is determined to make sure that more and more people know about tea, drink tea, encourage others to drink tea, and that every single Tea Association member continues to benefit from all the positive developments.