Back in December Bree and I, along with our older kiddos, were invited to High Tea at the elegant and luxurious tea spot The Urban Tea Merchant, deep in downtown Vancouver on West Georgia. We immediately liked Casey James, who was warm, patient, and talked to our kids like they were refined adults. Bree and I nodded to each other that we had to interview Casey for our Hustler series. A new mom, Casey had also embraced the family business and was working hard to incorporate her ideas of branding and outreach into the growing company. Meet Casey below!
P&H: What were you doing before taking on the family business of The Urban Tea Merchant?
CJ: My parents have always been in their own business. My mother had a vision that tea was going to be the next ‘big’ thing in North America. At that time, there was not much to relate to with tea. The vision was to open a retail store with high-end teas. Just before we opened The Urban Tea Merchant 10 years ago, my parents and I went on a four-month world trip. We traveled through Europe, East Africa, India and South East Asia to learn about the different cultures and how each culture experiences tea.
I came back to Vancouver to study Psychology and Marketing/Consumer Business at Simon Fraser University, while working at The Urban Tea Merchant as a Tea Ambassador. Taking the different roles on at once as a family business partner, Tea Ambassador and studying at the same time gave me a deeper understanding of our business and how consumers think when it comes to branding.
P&H: What was your trigger to follow this career path?
CJ: I always had an interest in business, in people and in growing with a company. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, as both my parents are entrepreneurs, I lived the ‘entrepreneurial lifestyle’ growing up; we were never ‘9 to 5′ family (chuckle). I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with it until The Urban Tea Merchant came about and I began to form my vision around my career path and what I really wanted to do with the business. Starting out as a Tea Ambassador (and yes, I took part in washing dishes when needed), my role developed from the ground up, and has allowed me to evolve into who I am today and the ideas I have to develop our business.
I saw the opportunity to grow with our business and that has been my goal since we opened in 2004.
I love working with my parents and my husband; while there are some intense times, it is also very rewarding at the end of the day.
We are now on a very exciting new growth path with our business. We have recently signed with TWG Tea to be the Exclusive Franchisee for Canada and we will be the first TWG Tea full concept Retail Boutique & Tea Salon in North America. My parents’ vision has always been to pass the business along to me when they retire and I look forward to achieving this over the next ten years through our continued growth.
P&H: Where do you get your inspiration from for product? For design and packaging?
CJ: TWG Tea does all of the packaging and design for the products. We have chosen to be aligned with them as we share the same values and philosophies when it comes to product and branding. TWG Tea tasters travel thousands of miles across the globe every year, sampling hundreds of teas in search of the most desirable harvests direct from source gardens.
The TWG Tea team take pride in shaping the aesthetic image underpinning all the brand’s products, constantly updating the notion of TWG Tea while respecting the Asian and European traditions of elegance and beauty on which it is based, now spiced with a touch of sensuality and originality.
On the marketing side and with the North American and specifically the Vancouver market, it has been a journey over the last 10 years to really understand our market. Being in two locations: Park Royal and Downtown Vancouver, has also been a learning process as they are two very different markets in the same city.
Making sure we stay with our concept of the high-end tea business, we like to say that we are in the ‘experience making’ business. We know our brand and concept.
P&H: What role does social media play in your business?
CJ: Social media is very important to us. We have been growing this over the last few years.
Most of our customers who use social media, regularly visit our Tea Salon, taking photos and posting them and sometimes will even write their experiences online to share with their friends. We always take the time to encourage our customers to post and take photos as we believe it is powerful word of mouth. On the other side, one negative comment can be quite damaging. That is why we take great pride in keeping our standards to the highest and do our best in giving a great experience to our customers.
We are hoping to continue growing our social media platforms and create innovative and fun ways to interact with our audience.
P&H: Do you involve your son in your work at all?
CJ: He’s 17 months old now, and already has a love for tea! I started making him iced rooibos tea when he was 8 months old and he loved it! Every time my husband and I make tea and sit down he’s always there with us wanting to join in. We think he will be just as passionate about tea as we are some day.
P&H: How important is it that your children take on or play a part in the business when they’re older?
CJ: I would love to engage him in our business as he gets older – if he’s interested. While I was raised by parents who were in business together, i was given the freedom to choose my career path and I will do the same with my son. I would not want him to be pressured to do anything he is not interested in. If he is interested though, it would be a great journey to share with him.
P&H: What has been your biggest challenge running your own business?
CJ: Running a family business is not always easy. There are many dynamics to balance and sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can damage the focus and growth of the business. Having said that, it is rewarding and is a huge learning opportunity working with my parents and my husband. Each of us has something special to offer and we try to allow time to observe and learn from each other.
It is always challenging to set “boundaries” with myself and my family. We have been doing much better with this as a family over the last few years, and I actually think having my son had helped dramatically. Allowing us all to stop and be more present. You are always “on” when you own your business. There is not much ‘down-time’ nor many opportunities to just shut everything off. Because of this, I believe it is so important to take time out each day for myself.
Whether it is a 5 minute meditation, exercise or a walk with a friend, it helps me to refresh my body and spirit and put everything back into perspective again.
One thing that I continue to work on are setting personal boundaries. It’s important to set boundaries in all aspects of your life including your personal life. I find this helps me find a type of “balance”. If we are having dinner with my parents one night, we all make an intention to not focus our dinner conversation on the business. We of course will talk about the business at some point in the night, but it is not consuming our time we are spending as a family.
P&H: What is the hardest part of maintaining your work/life balance?
CJ: Work/life balance can be very tricky. Sometimes I wonder if there is such a thing. Now that there are so many more women choosing to have a full-time career and having families, I think our view on creating a work/life balance is much more dynamic these days.
It’s been a huge learning process over this past year, with a growing business and a very busy toddler at home.
This past year has also taught me about being much more present. Both in my work and at home with my husband and son. There are a lot of things going on with the business and emails and phone calls can be coming in after I come home from work. I try to ‘shut off’ my computer and email for a couple of hours and give my attention to my family. That also goes with with when I am working. Since coming back to work from maternity leave, my role continues to evolve. Learning how to focus in on one item at a time isn’t always easy, but it is necessary at times.
I needed to travel for our business a few weeks ago and had to leave my son at home with my husband. Once I arrived at the hotel, I checked in at home, I found out that my son had developed a fever and stomach flu. It was very tough for me knowing I needed to focus on my work and I also needed to check in every hour to see how he was. At the same time, it has made me much stronger and confident.
P&H: What does success look like to you? How will you know when you have achieved it?
CJ: Success stands for different things to different people. It doesn’t always have to be materialistic or monetary. It also doesn’t come into your life all at once. It is multi-faceted.
For me, success includes having a strong family life, personal health and friendships, working within the community on something meaningful to me while running a successful business.
I believe we have built a successful business over the past decade. We have built special relationships with our customers and the community over the last 10 years. Understanding the community you are living in and running your business is a key to continuing your business success.
With the growth of our business this year, there will be a new form of success we hope to achieve. My goal will be to continue to strengthen our brand awareness in Vancouver and Canada, as well as strengthen our ongoing relationships within Canada. We have the exclusive rights for Canada and are working on the Western States with TWG Tea. Our goal is to have Canadians and eventually Americans know the brand TWG Tea as well as they know top luxury brands in North America.
P&H: What advice would you have wanted to know 5 or 10 years ago?
CJ: At the end of the day, I continue to remind myself that I’m not perfect. Instead I try to focus on what I am grateful for in life by writing down what I am grateful for every once in a while. I find it really humbling and it allows me to connect with my purpose and inner goals.
It is important to soak in the experiences you are having at the time and to be present. Things change so quickly and the next things you know, what you thought was once one of the biggest stressors, turns out wasn’t even half as important as you thought it was.