Gryphon nets global consumers with e-commerce leap

Traditional tea trader Lim Lam Thye had already transformed itself into Gryphon Tea, a purveyor of fine gourmet teas, but in 2012 it found that it needed to take another leap forward, this time by venturing into new markets. Robert Rafeson speaks to Gryphon Tea executive director Lim Tian Wee to find out how the company pulled it off.

Gryphon Tea's founder and executive director Lim Tian Wee has a brief message for companies thinking about how to achieve the next level of growth: Go online.
Gryphon Tea's founder and executive director Lim Tian Wee has a brief message for companies thinking about how to achieve the next level of growth: Go online.PHOTO: IE SINGAPORE

In 2012, the Gryphon Tea Company found itself at an inflexion point - growth had been stellar for five years but the limited size of the local market meant it had little hope of further expansion.

To keep growing, it needed to expand into new markets.

Inspired by e-commerce giants such as Amazon and eBay, the company's founder and executive director Lim Tian Wee decided to embark on an e-commerce strategy to reach overseas customers.


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A key advantage of this strategy was that it would avoid the need for local distribution agents in foreign markets, as Gryphon would sell directly to the end-consumers.

As an added benefit, Singapore consumers could also buy Gryphon products online. This would also allow the company to bypass the high distribution costs here, said Mr Lim, a fourth-generation tea trader whose great-grandmother founded the family business, Lim Lam Thye, in 1918.

Mr Lim founded Gryphon in 2006 to develop and manufacture premium gourmet teas. The product was quickly embraced by the local market, reaching the tables of high-end restaurants and hotels as well as supermarket shelves.

It posted yearly growth of at least 50 per cent in each of its first five years, but risked stalling unless it could find a new way to expand.

With assistance from IE Singapore, the company launched its first e-commerce site in 2012. The platform did not immediately pay dividends. In its first month, the website earned only $80 in revenue. But steady growth since then means that e-commerce now accounts for 7.5 per cent of total annual revenue.

More importantly, Gryphon's image has grown far beyond Singapore, and it now has customers in more than 50 countries, a 52 per cent increase over 2014.

These consumers act as brand ambassadors in promoting the company's teas internationally and seeking them when they come to Singapore.

"We have customers who visited Singapore and stayed in hotels that have our products, and when they returned to their own countries, they ordered our products online from our store," said Mr Lim.


Embarking on e-commerce meant that Gryphon had to overhaul not only its business strategy but also its staffing policy and organisational structure,

Before it started its digital expansion, it had only one person working across marketing, product development and media relations. Today it has two marketing teams: a traditional brand manager and an Internet marketing team.

A major challenge it faced when launching its online strategy was hiring its first e-commerce manager. The role needed specific knowledge and skills, which were not widely held among Singaporean workers at the time, said Mr Lim.

More recently, Gryphon has hired a social media marketer and a content specialist to run the company's social media accounts.

Getting used to e-commerce operations also proved a challenge. Gryphon's first website was "a little bit clumsy", recalled Mr Lim.

The website featured extensive flash animation, which detracted from its main purpose as a shopping platform.

To complicate matters, Mr Lim was dealing with two vendors, one designing the website and the other handling backend operations.

This arrangement turned out to be a "disaster", as it proved very difficult to coordinate between the two contractors, but they eventually surmounted this challenge.


Mr Lim regards IE Singapore's help in executing the e-commerce strategy as invaluable.

Among other things, the agency invited Gryphon to a forum that provided a "fantastic networking opportunity" and the chance to learn from others, including fashion retailer Love Bonito and e-commerce marketplace Qoo10.

IE Singapore also provided a Global Company Partnership grant for Gryphon to build its website, and offered advice on which vendors to use in expanding internationally. This led to joint marketing campaigns to promote and sell the teas.

Mr Lim has a brief message for companies thinking about how to achieve the next level of growth: Go online. This is crucial as today's consumers expect companies to provide online storefronts as well as quick turnaround times and personalised service, he said.

"The longer we wait to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon, the steeper the learning curve will be," he added.

Looking to expand overseas by going digital? Tap IE Singapore's Global Company Partnership Grant for support. Find out more here.

More on #SgGoesGlobal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'Gryphon nets global consumers with e-commerce leap'. Subscribe