Hubert Burda Media

Brewed for Greatness

TWG Tea is determined to make its mark and share its expertise with the world, shares President and CEO Taha Bouqdib.

Brewed for Greatness

Home-grown chain TWG Tea is determined to make its mark and share its expertise with the world. President and CEO TAHA BOUQDIB tells Sara Yap more
Dressed in golden hues and with chic yellow tea canisters lining the walls, TWG Tea's boutique looks every bit the quintessential European teahouse. So, it may come as a surprise that the luxury brand — which carries over 800 types of single-estate, fine harvest and special tea blends from countries such as Sri Lanka, India and China — is home-grown. In fact, all its products are labelled “Product of Singapore” and are wrapped in packaging marked “1837”, the year the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce was founded.
While some local companies prefer to downplay their heritage, believing it may affect their international appeal, TWG Tea's president and CEO Taha Bouqdib is proud of the brand's Singapore identity. “Many Singaporeans told me never to put ‘Made in Singapore' [on my products]. I said, ‘no way, this is a Singaporean brand',” says the 45-year-old permanent resident, who co-founded the business in 2008. Indeed, so passionate is he about his adopted home that, in celebration of its Golden Jubilee, his firm has rolled out limited-edition Heritage tea sets comprising two new blends inspired by the “spirit of the country”. One of the blends, named Legacy, even comes packaged in a tin with an illustration of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's likeness.
Patriotism aside, Bouqdib is determined to take TWG Tea to the world stage. Over the past year, it has expanded into Cambodia, South Korea and Taiwan, and more recently, opened outlets in Guangzhou's Taikoo Hui complex and Shanghai's iAPM mall and International Financial Centre. It was also the official tea sponsor for the 18th Shanghai International Film Festival in June. “[Setting up shop] in China — where tea was born — is quite something because we are the first non-Chinese luxury tea company to open there,” says Bouqdib, who is French of Moroccan descent.
Born in Rabat, Morocco, Bouqdib's love for tea started in his twenties. When studying law at the Paris-Sorbonne University he took up a part-time job at French tea company Mariage Frères on a friend's recommendation. Bouqdib recalls being fascinated by the many different variations of tea: “I remember my first day, when I smelt the tea upon entering and said, ‘Wow, all these teas exist in the world?' Because [I was only familiar with] Moroccan tea.” His interest grew and he spent his summer holidays visiting tea plantations abroad to learn more. “[I wanted] to absorb whatever I could, because I had fallen in love with this product,” he says. He eventually abandoned the thought of pursuing law as a career to work at the firm for some 15 years.
Greater things were to come his way. A chance meeting in 2004 with Singapore-based businessman Manoj Murjani sparked a friendship and together they set up a luxury tea business. With that, TWG Tea was born and opened its first outlet at Republic Plaza in 2008. While there were naysayers who believed its concept wouldn't succeed, Bouqdib refused to give up: “Everybody tried to discourage me…But I had already decided from a young age that this was my route. If many teahouses opened and closed, maybe they didn't have the right product.”
His formula turned out to be a winning one: Today, the brand operates 10 local outlets in venues such as ION Orchard shopping centre and Marina Bay Sands. Currently helmed by Bouqdib, his wife Maranda Barnes and Managing Director Rith Aum-Stievenard, TWG Tea also has as a major shareholder in the form of lifestyle company Osim International. Overseas, it runs 48 salons and boutiques in 15 countries including Japan, the UK and Dubai. Bouqdib has his sights set on Morocco, Australia, Qatar, Vietnam and Canada next.
Also in the pipeline is a tea institute slated to open in Singapore in November. Details are still being finalised, but he reveals that it will be used to train new TWG Tea staff in aspects such as tea history and preparation, and the lessons will be taught by the company's most experienced tea masters. There are also plans to extend classes to the public. “Anyone who wants to learn about tea can come — even our competitors. I feel tea is a beverage you need to share with friends, family and even with your enemy,” he says.
With so many plans underway, Bouqdib is constantly busy. But he describes his journey in tea as a dream come true: “I never feel that I'm working.”