THE LIFE! INTERVIEW

Gryphon founder Lim Tian Wee grows a tea business beyond Singapore

Mr Lim Kim Ban. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Kim Ban. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim with his wife, Ms Joyce Low, at the Gryphon Tea launch in Bangkok in 2012. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim with his wife, Ms Joyce Low, at the Gryphon Tea launch in Bangkok in 2012. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Tian Wee (left) aged 15, with his father and mother Mok Kit Chee and younger brother Tian Peng, eight. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Tian Wee (left) aged 15, with his father and mother Mok Kit Chee and younger brother Tian Peng, eight. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Tian Wee with his father Lim Keng Tong when he was eight months old. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Tian Wee with his father Lim Keng Tong when he was eight months old. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE
Mr Lim Tian Wee knew nothing about tea when he started 14 years ago, but now he can ace a blind tea-tasting. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr Lim Tian Wee knew nothing about tea when he started 14 years ago, but now he can ace a blind tea-tasting. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Gryphon Tea founder Lim Tian Wee associates tea with memories to come up with new ideas

Back in 2001, home-grown tea brand Gryphon Tea Company's founder Lim Tian Wee knew nothing about the beverage.

He failed miserably when put to the test by his father Lim Keng Tong, the third-generation owner of Gryphon's parent company Lim Lam Thye.

The junior Mr Lim admits: "My dad sat me down to taste 50 teas at one go. But they all tasted and looked the same."

Fast forward 14 years and Mr Lim, 45, confidently says that he can ace a blind tea-tasting down to the last drop, distinguishing between countries and regions.

Not only does he know his teas, the savvy businessman has also grown the nine-year-old Gryphon Tea, which has had a strong double-digit revenue growth since the brand's incorporation in 2006 and $5 million in annual revenue.

Its premium tea blends are stocked in hotels such as Capella Singapore, Fullerton Bay Hotel and Grand Park Orchard, as well as restaurants such as Pollen, Ku De Ta and Catalunya.

Fans of its tea now come from as far as Iceland and Russia, after he started selling it online (http://gryphon tea.com/on line-store/) last year.

Many may not realise that Gryphon is not only a Singapore brand, but also a subsidiary of the family tea-trading business Lim Lam Thye, started by Mr Lim's great-grandmother Lim Kheng Thiam in 1918.

The company originated as a provision shop selling Chinese tea.

When Mr Lim's 76-year-old father took over the business in the 1970s, it went beyond selling just Chinese tea and expanded into new markets such as the Middle East in the 1980s.

The company produces and exports black, green, jasmine and oolong tea from its factory in Singapore, as well as in Vietnam with a Vietnamese partner.

Teas produced by Lim Lam Thye are marketed under the brands of Tanah Chante, Lurah and Lim Lam.

Mr Lim studied marketing and nutrition at Michigan State University and held marketing roles at multinational companies Unilever and Beiersdorf AG before joining Lim Lam Thye.

On his previous jobs, Mr Lim - who comes across as both down-to-earth yet very driven - said he was "dissatisfied" because he could not "see or feel" his contribution to the companies.

But when he joined the family business after almost 10 years of working elsewhere, the dress-down environment proved to be a culture shock.

He says: "On my first day of work, I wore a tie because I'm so used to it. I wanted to look professional. It took me a month to give up the tie."

And working with family, he soon realised, took a toll on relationships at home. He says: "It was all tea talk and no personal time at the dining table. This was not healthy and if there are problems at work, there will be too much tension at home."

Now, everyone works independently. His younger brother Lim Tian Peng, 38, runs another subsidiary called Pryce, which specialises in Chinese tea. Their mother Mok Kit Chee, 65, still manages Lim Lam Thye with their father who is semi-retired.

After gaining more experience in the company, the older son soon realised that the business model was "not sustainable".

Mr Lim Tian Wee says: "We were too reliant on customers starting their businesses and coming to us. We were having more competitors and we needed to create a brand that could be sustained long term."

He decided to embrace higher-quality blended teas and started Gryphon Tea with just $2,500 from his father.

Pronounce it however you please, but it should be "griffin", says Mr Lim, who named the brand after the mythical creature that has a lion's body and an eagle's head and wings.

More importantly, it is also a tribute to his father who drew the griffin as a logo to export tea products to the Middle East back in the 1980s.

Mistaking the griffin drawing for a dragon at first, Mr Lim says that the name Gryphon was appropriate.

He adds: "My dad has dreams of building a successful brand and this is my tribute to him, so he can leave behind a legacy."

But the road was not always smooth.

"I faced rejection and had low self- esteem. It was very tough," says Mr Lim, who turned to his wife Joyce Low, 43, a managing director at Credit Suisse, for support. The couple, who have been together for 19 years, have no children.

Speaking fondly of his wife, Mr Lim says: "She is a pillar and supports me. She's my sounding board and, if I need to make decisions, she gives ideas, never opinions. We know not to cross into each other's territories."

Ms Low is in the privileged position, like her husband, of trying out new blends of tea before they make it to the market.

"He will make me try the tea and insist that I tell him what ingredients have been used to make it. He is a perfectionist and has high expectations," she says.

Mr Lim says solemnly that it took two years to convince customers about the brand. His first customer was American coffee retailer Spinelli Coffee Company in Singapore. After business picked up in 2008, the brand ventured into supermarkets due to consumer demand.

Setting his sights this year on expansion overseas, the entrepreneur is breaking into new markets such as France and the Philippines.

In the long run, he hopes to find a partner in China and set up a manufacturing facility in the country.

The brand is synonymous with innovative tea blends - its best-selling flavour here is Pearl Of The Orient, a green tea with rose petal flavours - and will continue to roll out more of them this year.

In Thailand, the top-seller is a white tea called Cherry Blossom, and in Indonesia, it is Earl Grey Lavender black tea.

In line with the SG50 celebrations, a Singapore Tribute tea will be launched every year starting from next month on Gryphon's online store.

"So, by Singapore's 60th birthday, we will have a collection of 10 Singapore Tribute teas," says Mr Lim with pride.

His first Singapore Tribute blend is called Singapura Spice, a fruity green tea inspired by curry.

"Take a bunch of curry leaves and smell. What do you smell? I smell lemongrass, coconut and chilli crab. You can't take it literally and say you just smell curry.

"It's about associating teas with memories and experiences. That's how I create teas," says Mr Lim, who can trace this back to his teenage days as an "odd-job labourer" helping his father blend teas in the factory for $5 an hour.

The foodie and avid cook quickly gives tips on how to pair the Singapura Spice tea flavours with food - an element that is always part of the Gryphon tea packaging, with food-pairing suggestions printed on every box.

"Durian creme brulee and nasi lemak will work well," he says confidently.

Other flavours such as Tomatino were created because Mr Lim ate tomatoes every day and insisted on making a tea inspired by it.

He says: "I don't care if you like it or not, I'm going to make it. There are no rules when it comes to interpreting tea."

Another two new flavours are Templetree Lotus, inspired by Vietnamese lotus tea, and Lily Of The Field, derived from one of his favourite flowers.

Likening tea-blending to a form of art, Mr Lim has also worked with chefs such as Tippling Club's Ryan Clift and Janice Wong of 2am: dessertbar and her eponymous sweet shop at Ion Orchard.

On the experience of working with him, chef Wong says: "I've worked with Gryphon since 2am: dessertbar first opened in 2007. At that time, I just Googled for tea suppliers and Gryphon came up. But Tian Wee was very quick to set up everything and let us try his teas. He made it very easy for me, he was approachable and I can trust the brand's quality control. We've been using his tea ever since and created a hawthorn tea for the dessert bar."

The creative tea maker is still pushing the boundaries for the industry.

"Why does tea have to be the same colour all the time? Why can't it be purple? Tea can be a visual experience too, just like how a chef plates food elegantly," says Mr Lim, who is looking to enhance the appearance of tea.

His biggest challenge so far is trying to create a tea that is bitter, yet easy on the palate.

In the second quarter of this year, he is looking to launch another tea line called Monogram, and has other tea-related projects in the pipeline for the year.

The new brands will not conflict with Gryphon, he insists, as there is much to explore in the market.

Nor is he in a hurry to launch a tea salon or boutique, although he is considering a space in the Central Business District.

He says, somewhat enigmatically, of the project: "Even if it is not realised, the show must go on. There are many ways to skin a cat."

Mr Lim, who goes for runs at MacRitchie Reservoir or Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to destress, still believes he has a long way to go to develop the business.

Asked what he would do if tea was not part of his life, the former busboy at a Chinese restaurant in his university days says he might have ended up in the restaurant business.

He tells you with a grin: "The restaurant owners offered me a job as the restaurant manager. But my dad would have killed me.

"I guess if I wasn't selling tea, I'll probably run a restaurant or be a chef. I'd definitely still be in the food and beverage industry."

euniceq@sph.com.sg