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His face adorns boxes of teabags worldwide, bearded, smiling, and in front of a clipper ship. You drink his tea at Denny's. Or the instant stuff that comes in the blue can. Or the brewed tea in the bottle. He once created the biggest cheese ever made, and he's also been called "the world's best loser." Here's the success story behind the household name.

Early years

Born on May 10, 1850 in Scotland, Thomas J. Lipton was a hard-working, resourceful kid, working to help support his family in 1860 when he was only 10. His family owned a grocery store and he had an interest in the business from this early age. Over the next five years, he was able to put aside around $26, which bought him passage to New York City with $8 to spare. It wasn’t quite enough to get him lodging, so he struck a deal with a landlord. If he rounded up 12 paying lodgers, he could stay for free.

He spent the next few years working, first as a farm laborer in Virginia and South Carolina, then later learning the merchandising methods employed in the grocery section of a New York department store. Over the decade, Lipton worked at various jobs and put aside $500, which he took back to Scotland in 1870.

Lipton the grocer

In May 1871, he opened a shop in Glasgow. It sold the regular array of food items. An idea he had brought back from America - aggressive marketing - helped him edge out his competition. He offered entertainment to children to allow mothers the freedom to shop, installed fun house mirrors, and hired cartoonists to make posters for his windows. He even hired someone to walk a pair of pigs through town to his shop to advertise his bacon. In one of his marketing ploys in 1881, Lipton captured the attention of the public by creating the "largest cheese ever made." Into the cheese he inserted gold coins. The huge cheese sold at a furious pace to people hoping to get one of the lucky gold slices.

By the time he was thirty, Lipton ran a chain of stores, moved his headquarters to London, and was a millionaire. His keen sense of advertising and marketing would help him live up to his ambition to put a Lipton shop in every Scottish city, and beyond. After all this activity, Lipton decided to take a much-needed vacation to Australia in 1890.

Lipton enters the tea trade

En route to Australia, he stopped in Ceylon. That year, coffee plantations in Ceylon affected by the blight were being replanted with tea and some estates were on offer for sale. Some London bankers, representing a group of Ceylon estates, had approached Lipton in Scotland to persuade him to purchase tea estates and enter the business of tea planting on a large scale. By that time, he was already selling tea in a big way in his large chain of Lipton grocery shops in England and Scotland where the main commodities sold were ham, bacon, eggs and cheese. He entered the tea business as an adjunct to the other commodities only after he had more or less achieved all he had originally set out to do in the general provision trade.

He bought several tea plantations in Ceylon. In Haputale, he bought the Dambatenne, Laymostotte and Monerakande estates. A few days later, he bought Pooprassie estate in Pussellawa. In his memoirs, he wriote, “Between the estates I had bought and the big sum of money I left with my agent I think I must have invested well over a hundred thousand pounds in Ceylon within a week of my arrival in that lovely and delectable island of spicy breezes."

That was the beginning of a highly successful business in tea planting and trading that has made Lipton a household name worldwide. The Dambatenne Estate was the favorite resting place of Lipton in Sri Lanka and remained the Lipton Headquarters until recently. A memento of the days gone by in the form of a seat used by Lipton to enjoy the scenery below is still there at this estate. The Lipton's seat located in a vantage point commands a panoramic view from an altitude of 1960 metres of the sloping terrain of southeastern Sri Lanka bordered by the Deniyaya Hills to the southwest. The lights of the Great and Little Basses lighthouses can be seen in the night.

Lipton observed that the tea plucked in his plantations on the hill slopes had to be carried on the back of tea pluckers to the factories located far below down steep mountain paths which at times tend to prove dangerous. He devised anew method of transporting the sacks by fitting a system of what might be described as aerial 'wire-ways' between the tea gardens on the hills and the factories at their base.

This cable operation which is still in use in many tea estates in Sri Lanka were to the delight of the tea pluckers who were relieved of the agonizing task of carrying bags full of plucked tea down steep hilly slopes. This was one of the several ways Lipton used to reorganise the production of tea on his estates. With the increase in demand for Lipton's tea he had to augment the supplies from his own estates in Sri Lanka with purchases of large parcels at the Colombo Tea Sales and at Mincing Lane in London. He refers to a payment of sterling pounds 50,513 11s.6d as customs dues for the clearance of three million pounds of tea as a Customs record of the time. That too had been beaten in later years by Lipton himself.

Lipton brought much of his tea to America in clipper ships. Lipton was the first to package tea in small, convenient tins to keep the leaves fresh, preserve the flavor and guarantee that customers received the correct amount of tea. Until that time, tea was sold in open chests. The packaging paid off and he sold 4 million packets that year. In 1893, Lipton registered a new trademark for the packaged tea he has been selling. Over the printed signature “Thomas J. Lipton, Tea Planter, Ceylon,” Lipton prints the words, “Nongenuine without this signature.”

Queen Victoria knighted Lipton for his commercial success as well as his philanthropy. During the Spanish-American war, and later during WWI, Lipton gave money and services to aid the wounded.

A keen yachtsman, Lipton first challenged for the America’s cup in 1899, with his yacht, Shamrock I. He made five attempts to win the cup, but never won. However, he earned a reputation as “the world’s best loser,” and was presented with a gold cup by the people of America for his good sportsmanship.

Lipton died in London in 1931. He had no heirs, and left much of his fortune to the city of Glasgow, to aid the poor, and to build hospitals.

Today, Lipton markets more than half the tea sold in America through grocery and convenience stores.

Now that's BRISK baby!


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