Founder of The Tea Collective, Becci Fowler chats to us about her extraordinary business and life journey.
When Becci Fowler first opened The Tea Project on Newcastle’s King St in 2014, it was love at first sight. From her exquisite teas and fluffy scones, luxe interiors, glorious service, and there was of course Becci herself.
Becci’s bubbly and welcoming personality has you feeling as though you’ve been friends forever, and combined with her boutique hand-blended tea products, it was a business combination Newcastle hadn’t yet experienced.
Catching with Becci as a part of our International Women's Day series, Becci recalls how she knew from a young age she wanted to run her own business. With her eclectic work history and colourful life experience Becci has been able to build what is today - a phenomenally successful and fast growing business that is in demand not only around Australia, but overseas.
Meeting at The Tea Collective warehouse in Mayfield West, we were given the full tea tour, with Becci updating us on the evolution of The Tea Collective along the way, and kindly sharing her life journey, which has been unconventional, and adventurous to say the least. Here’s our chat….
Can you take us back to the beginning, and where the idea for The Tea Collective first came about?
I was working in Europe for 10 years on Superyachts as Chief Stewardess and I had the run of interiors, which meant I had to consider every element of the guest experience. I had to ensure the flowers were right, the smell of the cabin was right, and the lighting had to be appropriate for the time of day. I was also responsible for sourcing all the products from bathroom products to special caviars from Russia. It was about creating a space, making things feel good, which is where I learnt to have an eye for detail.
Sourcing the best tea products and making tea was part of this experience and that’s where my love of tea began, so when I returned to Newcastle that’s when the idea to start blending tea and The Tea Collective came about.
It’s been 9 years since you first launched, has the business changed significantly since then?
Initially I had around 120 blends, now we have 40 in the range. I needed to streamline things as our ingredients are all very fresh and dependent on who can produce them. During Covid it became difficult to source certain products so I had to pivot the business to account for this. It’s also important that a product has longevity, you don’t want to create something that can’t be accessed in 6 months time.
What hasn’t changed is the hands-on aspect of the business. Myself and the team, there’s five of us now, hand blend and package the tea here in the warehouse.
It’s what makes The Tea Collective unique compared to other tea brands. I’ve always taken a hands on approach, just not to this scale, we now have 700 stockists we supply to.
Do you miss The Tea Room?
I don’t miss getting up at 6am to roll scones [laughs]. I do miss the interactions with people which is why I opened the retail space here at the warehouse, but now I have more time to focus on the product, as opposed to the service of the product.
Blending teas from her home initially, before moving into a larger space with the opening of Autumn Rooms, demand for Becci’s tea product grew exponentially which led her, in 2021, to lease a warehouse big enough to accommodate the expected growth. Then Covid hit, again.
We were hugely affected by Covid, in many ways, and I had just signed this lease. I was sitting on the floor in this empty warehouse, a little drunk, thinking what am I going to do with this 500 sq. metre space. I realised I had to keep moving, so the first thing I did was get it commercially cleaned, then painted, and I just began blending. There were a lot of ups and downs over the next few years but I just kept going.
Was there a turning point or something you remember that gave you confidence to keep going?
When I started going to trade shows, that’s when it really took off. I started getting a lot of inquiries from stockists, and winning awards I wasn't even entering. Then I got picked up by Unique, the biggest health supplier in Australia, which took the business to another level.
Whilst Covid was hard, it gave me time to align with the right suppliers and establish the systems I needed to make the business less manual. We’ve just started shipping to Hong Kong which is huge, and that wouldn’t have been possible if those systems weren’t in place.
During those difficult moments in life and business is there something you do or draw on to get through them?
I’ve never felt sorry for myself, I’ve always been excited about being alive, even when I was going through some really hard times I have thought of it as being an adventure which I attribute mostly to my upbringing.
I was one of five kids and I had quite an unstable childhood. I was born in Adelaide but spent most of my early years on the Sunshine Coast. I went to a lot of different primary schools and was always getting into trouble, and when I was around 13 I left home. Despite all the instability, there was something inside of me that was always quite inquisitive.
That seems so young to leave home, where did you go?
When I was 14 I started doing a lot of hitchhiking and I hitchhiked from the Sunshine Coast to just outside of Adelaide. I was gone for about a week and a half and was listed as a missing person. I was hitchhiking with all sorts of people, it was wild, and that’s when I got a sniff of traveling and it set off this thing inside me.
I moved back home a couple of times but it never lasted long, so as a teenager I spent a lot of time in Byron Bay, which had a great hippie scene. We would all sleep in the park, everyone was doing it so you weren’t seen as a street kid, more just living off the land. There wasn’t any crime or drugs, it was just about pitching in with the community. Yeah we didn’t have anywhere to live but that was fine. [laughs]
How did you manage to break away from being a street kid?
I enrolled myself into an Adult Tertiary course, which I didn’t finish but I progressed far enough along to understand the basic skills. I then started working on fishing boats out of Mooloolaba, I was 18 and we’d travel from Lord Howe Island all the way to Adelaide. I did this for a couple of years, and in the beginning it was tough. I was the only girl on the boat and on my first trip I became extremely sea sick. I almost had to get airlifted off the boat, but I stuck it out and found my sea legs.
I saved enough money to put myself through a two year business course, and was managing a restaurant at the same time. When I finished I thought, right, time to head overseas. I was 22 at the time and I had about $1,000 in the bank so I started working in ski fields, traveling mostly between New Zealand and Europe for a few seasons.
Between one of the seasons I trekked the Camino de Santiago Trail through Spain, it was a solid month of walking which gave me the time to clear my head. It was then I realised I wanted to run my own business and to do that I needed to make some money, so that’s when I started on the Superyachts.
It’s an incredible story especially to see where you were and where you are today. What was your driver, particularly during those really difficult times?
I’ve always tried to think about my happiness, and from a young age I realised that I am the only person who can change my life, I couldn’t rely on anyone else to do it for me, and having that attitude has helped a lot throughout my life.
If there was some advice you could give yourself as a new business owner what would that be?
You have to look at today. When you first start a business you’ve got to enjoy where you are, and understand you can’t know everything today. I used to stress out all the time about pretty much everything I didn’t know, and the only way to overcome that is with time. After 9 years it doesn’t affect me like it used to.
You’re always going to have ups and downs, you’re not special, every business owner is exactly the same. It’s how you react. When a problem arises now I look at it as, yes! What a learning curve, I am not going to do that again, and because of that I am a more skilled business owner.
Have mentors been an important part of your business and life journey?
Yes, I’ve had lots of different mentors over the years, there are probably people who didn’t even realise they were my mentors at the time. Al, who is my accountant and I look at as my mentor, he has been incredibly helpful with the distribution side of my business.
When it comes to life mentoring, there’s been a lot of yoga, definitely yoga!.
Now the warehouse is open, do you have any future plans for The Tea Collective?
I would love to create a concept store, similar to what AESOP created, a beautiful space that invites people in to chat about what tea is, the process and how you make tea.
I live by the saying - ‘Something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to.’ I have my purpose and love in my life, a concept store is what I am working towards and what makes me excited.