I never learned to like coffee. While in college, friends predicted I’d drink it to stay alert to study. Didn’t happen. Once I entered the workforce, I was told I’d start drinking it to stay awake during boring meetings. That didn’t happen either. I love the smell, but can’t stomach the taste. But tea is another matter.
I like the morning break room ritual where coworkers gather to fill their mugs and chat to get the day started. Tea has legitimized my presence there among my coffee-swilling co-workers. Then there was the business trip to the UK in the late 90s. The hotel I stayed at was forgettable, but the pot of tea brought to my table each morning at breakfast was fantastic! I have since that moment attempted to recreate the quality of that brew each morning when I trek to the break room.
It just so happens that tea has a fascinating history, as eloquently documented in Sarah Rose’s “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History”. England’s tea habit was solidly entrenched in the mid-19th century when this story begins. The sole source for tea of any quality or quantity was China. The British Empire, under the auspices of the East India Company, did brisk business trading opium to China in exchange for tea, at a handsome profit of course. Trade was significantly bolstered by the fact that about one-third of the Chinese population was addicted to opium, creating resentment among the Chinese authorities who understood exactly what the trade was costing them.
To curb the problem, the Chinese effectively closed their country to foreigners, hoping to limit outside influence. Trade was still conducted, but only through special trade zones set up in a handful of port cities. This touched off the First Opium War in 1839 and when it ended in 1842, the Chinese had lost. The British won trade concessions and broader access to China.
Even though the British had the upper hand, they perceived a threat to the advantageous trade imbalance they enjoyed. What if China cultivated its own opium? It would cut Britain entirely out of the tea/opium trade. The threat was real enough for the British Empire to make a preemptive strike. They would steal the intellectual property necessary to cultivate tea in the Darjeeling region of India, a British colony, thus breaking the monopoly China had on tea production.
Botanists were “rock stars” of sorts in England during the mid-1800s. They ventured out on voyages of discovery throughout the Empire, on which the sun never set, and returned with new plants which brought them wealth and professional accolades. Enter Robert Fortune, an aspiring botanist recruited to perform the industrial espionage necessary to bring tea and the secrets for processing it out of China and into India. That he succeeded is amazing, considering he was a foreigner with no knowledge of the land, its people or culture. By the time his mission was accomplished, he had successfully exported thousands of tea plants and seeds, along with the know-how to grow and process it. The Chinese had no idea their pockets were being picked until it was too late. They took two lumps – an opium-addicted populace and the loss of a national asset.
Perhaps even more amazing are the economic consequences of Fortune’s success. Once a luxury, tea became accessible to the masses. It spurred improvements in transportation and manufacturing. The economic benefits of tea consumption extended deeply into everyday life in England. The mortality rate dropped as people consumed more tea – made with boiling water that killed cholera bacteria and other water-borne illnesses. Before tea drinking was widespread, factory workers nourished themselves with beer and ale. But consumption of fermented beverages made huge demands on agricultural production, consuming up to half the annual wheat harvest. And machinery ushered into factories during the Industrial Revolution did not tolerate inebriated workers well. Tea sweetened with sugar and milk provided a cheap, dense source of protein and calories. Rose asserts that European countries where alcohol continued as the staple drink lagged Britain 50 years in the process of industrialization.
This story should speak to contemporary organizations in a couple of ways:
- Do your competitors always play fair? Never assume that they will, and when they don’t, the honest combatants always seem to fall victim to those with fewer scruples. Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military strategist, once observed, “Business is war”. This story brings that harsh truth into clear focus. It is naïve to think that your competitors will play by your rules, or that those rules, if fair today, will remain unchanged. Please don’t interpret my comments here as encouragement to cheat. But do recognize that some will not compete fairly even when you do.
- Do you understand what’s at stake, not just for you but also for your competitors? If you’re a market leader, you may feel you have your leadership position at stake. Have you considered what’s at stake for the market laggard? It might be survival, and when the stakes are that high, companies go to amazing lengths to stay in the game. Such stakes provide them with great determination. You should understand the stakes for you and all your competitors, because there usually isn’t parity and when they’re very high for some, what might they do as a result?
Within 20 years of Fortune’s successful act of industrial espionage, the tea trade had shifted from China to India. The Chinese never saw it coming. Will you?