More than a 100 years old, the Goomtee tea estate guest house sits on top of a hill, past the factory that has the year 1899 stamped in a vibrant blue. I am in a room with a view of rolling tea hills that fall away into the distance. I can see the Jungpana tea estate on the opposite hillside. Jungpana, the tea estate that is inaccessible by road. More on Jungpanna later. For now it is with Ashok Kumar the owner of Goomtee, whom I met in his home in Kolkatta after a stay in Goomtee.
The Guest House with a View of rolling hills of tea
Question: Can you share the history of Goomtee and how you came into the tea business?
Ashok Kumar: My father and Mr. Kejriwal were friends and related. Mr. Kejriwal had purchased Jungpanna in 1954 and the adjoining property Goomtee became available in 1956. My father who had experience of managing large work forces contributed to help bring managing the people and operations. Between the 50’s to the 70’s many big companies sold their tea estates because they could not make a profit and were unviable. Many people with other businesses (like my father) though having no exposure to tea bought them and turned them around to make them viable businesses. I remember my father made friends with the british planters, bought books, learnt about tea to educate himself about this newly acquired business.
I went ot school in Darjeeling in 1960 and then to America in 1964 to study electrical engineering. On my return I worked in Delhi as an engineer. My father called me to help with Goomtee in 1976 and I worked as a manager till 1980 before taking over the riens.
Question: Why engineering when there was a tea estate in the family that you would eventually inherit?
Ashok Kumar: Fathers are in full control of their businesses and have to develop a need for you or you have to develop a dissatisfaction with what you are doing. A bit of both came together for me in 1976. The same pattern has repeated itself with my two boys as they were growing up. As long as I am running my business there is little room for another. Aditya, came back after his Masters in the USA and immediately I had to start a new unit that he could manage independently. My second son, Pawan did his PhD and he took up a different career that gives him great satisfaction.
Question: What does Tea mean for you and others who have several other businesses besides tea?
Ashok Kumar: A tea garden is not just a factory, it is a large piece of land, workers are staying on your property in houses provided by you. You are providing them with everything so the relationship is intimate. If water fails it is your problem, if there is a quarrel in the family of a worker, it is your problem, so it is a relationship that continues from birth to death. The cost of labor is a major part of production costs.
Ten years ago in Darjeeling, 12 to 14 became unprofitable and closed. A trend started with large business groups that were well diversified in other businesses , acquiring 10 to 12 gardens each. Consequently, today 10 large companies own 10 to 12 gardens each. Consolidation has brought tremendous marketing power to the bigger companies because they can distribute their costs. The impact of this is that the individual characteristic of individual gardens is disappearing. This has also resulted in indistinguishable teas which it is felt sell the best and it is easier to sell all the way down the line but the boutique character is lost. Sooner or later the small unit is squeezed out because the circumstances in terms of competition become unfavorable and it is not a level playing field. Goomtee is still a boutique tea estate. There used to be 30 tea estates like Goomtee but now there are only 10 left.
There will of course be good tea gardens under diversified businesses as much as single business owners.
Question: Is selling tea different for you as a boutique tea estate? Who do you sell to?
Ashok Kumar: If you are a large importer in Germany or America you will necessarily buy from a large company with several tea estates and not a boutique tea estate like Goomtee. The large companies with many tea gardens have a portfolio of a variety of teas that can meet the importers needs. These importers have to put more effort with Goomtee with several invoices at different times. It is not worth their while to do so since there is nothing that they cannot get from the large producers. There is a risk an importer takes when they buy from a big company because there is always a chance that the big compnaies will go directly to their customers. Boutique tea estates like Goomtee sell to tea merchants in Kolkatta or to mid to large buyers from America and Europe who are boutique businesses themselves and visit Goomtee to buy directly from us. They procure directly from the gardens and have discerning customers who know their tea or have developed a taste for particular teas. You also have to assess the genuineness of a buyer. People with a long history in the tea industry are genuine with established reputations. Since you have no control over your tea once you have sold it you want to be sure you sell to genuine buyers who will sell your tea as it should be sold e.g. as FTFFOP (Fine Tippy First Flush Orange Pekoe) from Goomtee /Darjeeling.
Recently in Germany if you had 50 % Darjeeling you could call it Darjeeling now you cannot. 9 million tonnes of Darjeeling tea is produced annually and from that “leaf” will be half i.e. about four and a half million. There will be lower level leaf and finally only 3/4th million tonne can be said to have real Darjeeling character. Therefore you have to be sure that whoever buys from you will sell the tea with the correct label.