Tea for 2
20.04.13 | Posted in People I Love
As a mum to two little girls, I’m often having tea parties. We sit in a circle, crossed legged on the floor and sip from pale pink tea cups the perfect size for a three year old and a one year old. Every time we practise our ritual, I’m reminded that tea parties used to be reserved only for the very young during playtime and the old to pass the time, but then Maryanne Shearer came along and made tea cool again. For the young, the old, and everyone in between.
Maryanne is the founder of T2, the retail giant that serves up Australia’s largest range of teas. They currently have 40 stores nationally and this year plan to open a new store each month. They also have 2000 wholesale customers and are rapidly growing their online offering. “We plan to take our brand overseas in the next 12 months. Our journey has only just begun,” Maryanne says of T2’s plans.
T2 has enjoyed steady growth since its opening in 1996. Funnily enough the idea was born over a cup of tea. “My business partner and I were having a chat about the business we had started four months earlier and how we couldn’t get it to work. We thought a cup of tea would help us gather our thoughts. We brewed up a black tea and bang that was it! ‘Why don’t we do tea? Everyone else is doing coffee, why don’t we do tea?!’ In an excited frenzy off we went with our list of things to do and soon we were putting up Chinese wallpaper and painting the ceiling pink in our first store in Fitzroy, Melbourne. We were determined to create an amazing retail environment that completely spoilt the customer.”
Now 50, Maryanne grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with her mum, dad and two sisters. Both her dad and grandfather were artists and painters and Maryanne inherited their creativity and love for art. “I always wanted to be a fashion designer and my mum allowed me time to dream and indulged my creative side. I wasn’t really the sporty type and I used to love making things and creating. My mum also worked very hard and very long hours; I have my mum to thank for my strong work ethic,” Maryanne says.
After finishing school, Maryanne studied fashion design and went on to work as a designer and in various roles in fashion retail. “I worked as a visual merchandiser and a buyer. I became very interested in store layout, design and how stores themselves worked. I got involved in shop fitting and mannequin selection, basically the overall store ambience. Working as a designer I would pop out into the store to see what the customers were up to, I loved the ceremony of the shopper,” Maryanne says.
It’s Maryanne’s understanding of the customer that has made T2 so successful. A T2 store is a sensory feast, it’s hard to walk into one and leave empty handed. There are temptations everywhere and they’re not just visual. Maryanne has created a full experience for the shopper – you can taste, you can smell and you can touch. And each time you visit, something new appears. T2 is constantly re-inventing and this remains a core focus for Maryanne. “I think that re-invention is the key to success. As soon as it feels comfortable and it’s easy; it’s time to change. The team at T2 are very familiar with this; it’s my favourite saying! This approach keeps it interesting for everyone, including the customer.”
Although there are 40 retail stores, you never experience that cloned, chain store feeling you can with other brands. “Everything we did in the early years was done by hand and it looked like it. It gave the brand a uniqueness and a bespoke feel and we’ve tried very hard to keep that feel as we’ve grown.”
Maintaining that unique feel is a focus for T2’s 500 team members. Maryanne describes T2’s culture like that of a family business. “Although there are only a couple of us that are actually related within the business, it definitely feels personal. The business is built on passion and we all take our role within it very seriously, but we make sure we have fun doing it. T2 is young at heart and it has a very effervescent spirit.”
Maryanne never thought she’d lead a team of 500 people, but believes she became a business owner because of her need for perfection. “I cannot bear to see something done half right; I always have to do it exactly as I see it in my mind. Most business owners cut costs and insist on compromising for profit, I completely disagree with this approach. There are always people that are prepared to pay a little bit more to have the best or to have an experience. This sounds naive, but it is my general philosophy that if you focus on the product and customer experience, the money will come. In saying that I have an amazing group of business and finance focused people around me and as the business grows the scientific side becomes more and more important.”
For all businesses, growth and expansion brings its own set of complex problems. Maryanne shares one of her biggest lessons so far. “One of the key things I’ve learnt is that cash flow must be kept in check at all times. If you run out of money, no matter how good your idea is, there is no way forward.” The retail environment also brings challenges and Maryanne learnt right at the start that it’s all about location, location, location. “In the early years we were a little too confident and put stores in the wrong spot, which at a great cost, we then had to close down. We now have a very strong understanding of our customer and where they like to shop.”
Maryanne’s partner Bruce is who she looks to for advice when times are tough. Bruce was a successful engineer who built a significant business and floated it before he retired over ten years ago. “Bruce is my mentor and business advisor, we are complete opposites. I have taught him to be a retailer and he has taught me that a strong profit and loss statement and balance sheet are essential.”
Together Bruce and Maryanne have three children, 12 year old Hannah and 11 year old twins, Oliver and Harry. Not only did Maryanne grow a successful business; she did it with a one year old and twin baby boys. “I became pregnant for the first time when T2 was four years old. We were about to open our third store and it all seemed fairly manageable. I had this great little business and a beautiful little girl, I could not have been happier. Then when Hannah was five months old, I became pregnant with twins and I bought my business partner out. When my beautiful identical twin boys were born, I was probably a little overwhelmed as now the game had changed, significantly.”
Bruce’s retirement meant that Maryanne was able to focus on growing the business, but she’s always made distinctions between work and family time, careful to devote time to both. “When I’m at home, I avoid working as I attempt to be present wherever I am. I never work weekends either – weekends are family time.”
Hearing her story, it’s no surprise that Maryanne was awarded the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year in 2012. But, what she’s most proud of is her team. “I’m constantly surprised at how strong the T2 culture has become and it’s simply because we all love what we do.” And her greatest piece of advice for other women wanting to tread the same path to success? “Surround yourself with experts in all other areas that are not your ‘cup of tea’. You can’t do everything yourself, so find and retain the best people you can afford.
“Now that I’m a ‘tea lady’, I often think, that if someone had said to me 30 years ago you will become a tea shop owner and be one of Australia’s leading tea experts, I would have laughed madly. My advice is consistent though. Do what you’re good at. Be open-minded and always keep an eye out for those opportunities that can re-invent your career or life – you’ll never know where you’ll end up.”
This article was first published in Latte, the Business Chicks magazine that our awesome Premium members receive. It’s reproduced here with full permission.