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Sir Thomas Lipton And His Empire Of Tea

Jul 18, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Just as the Civil War was coming to an end, a young journeyman from Glasgow, Scotland, arrived by ship in New York. When Thomas Lipton came to America he was like thousands of other recent arrivals — penniless and anonymous. The young Glaswegian spent five years in the United States doing odd jobs and taking in his surroundings before returning to Scotland to found his empire — Lipton Teas.

Michael D'Antonio, author of A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup, says the time Lipton spent learning the ways of American business became invaluable to the success of his enterprise.

"He learned that it was far better to scrub up your little store and light it brightly, and display your goods with some flair than to try to hide the flaws in your merchandise and pass it off as first-rate goods," D'Antonio tells NPR's Guy Raz.

Such techniques were practically unheard of in Scotland's badly lit and badly stocked shops, so when Lipton returned home in 1870 and opened his own well-lit, fully stocked business, he was a smashing success.

But that success wasn't only because of the lighting. Lipton's exceptional business sense allowed him to recognize the need in England for reliably good tea at a time when it wasn't at all uncommon for used tea to be repackaged as new by questionable merchants.

"He really developed the first consistent brand of tea that was the same from package to package, from location to location, every time you bought it," D'Antonio says. "And he priced it at half the price of other manufacturers so it was a runaway hit."

Lipton became known for selling reliably good products at affordable prices, making tea popular among Americans and — later in life — donating chunks of his fortune to charitable causes.

When he died in 1931, having never married or had children, much of his fortune went directly to the city of Glasgow for social, sporting and educational programs that still exist today.

"The funny thing about Lipton is that he was the business celebrity that you could love because he was much like you; he wasn't beyond reach and he enjoyed himself so much," D'Antonio says. "Nothing to fear with Lipton — everything to love."

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A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup
By Michael D'Antonio
Hardcover, 368 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List price: $26.95
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