28 December 2005

Transitioning To Corporate America

Today, the extended family travelled to the People's Republic of Boulder. Why? We went on the Celestial Seasonings factory tour. It turns out that, since 2000, Celestial Seasonings has been part of a huge natural foods conglomerate (Hain Celestial) that makes everything from Agave Nectar to Soy Milk, in addition to tea.

Celestial Seasonings was founded in 1970. All of the tea in the world produced under that brand is still made in Boulder (well, actually, it may be a mile or two out of the city limits, although it is hard to tell as city boundaries snake and swerve). Indeed, it turns out that new tea product lines and package design (including the pithy quotes that accompany its products -- my favorite "Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea.") are also from Boulder, although the raw materials (mostly unprocessed tea, herbs, peppermint, etc.) are imported, apparently sometimes from related entities abroad. Still, one feels less concerned about importing raw, unprocessed hibiscus from China (a major component of many herbal teas) than manufactured goods, as it isn't native to temperate North America.

Tea manufacturing is a factory style operation, but it is also relatively neat, orderly, and clean. The machines that turn the raw materials into pallets of product bound for destinations across the nation are noisy, but not so noisy that you can hear them from the parking lot. The factory uses plenty of energy, but the factory itself doesn't appear to have significant emissions as it appears to run on electricity. You can smell the ingredients (the tour guide called it "tea dust") which my environmental scientist father noted might be levels of particulate matter higher than might be ideal for someone facing prolonged exposure. But, like most modern manufacturing operations, the number of people required to keep the factory part operating is surprising small. The assembly line has come a long way since Ford introduced it to build the Model T. Now, factory workers, at least in this kind of plant, primarily engage in the care and feeding of the robotic systems that actually do the work, rather than in doing the repetitive work itself.

Celestial Seasonings is, like Ben and Jerry's, Borders Books, and a few other companies, a classic example of a company that has moved from a small progressive entrapreneurial operation to a major national company in relatively short order. There are many liberals for whom this poses a conflict. Many liberals favor small, independent enterprises. But, the most successful ones end up being big corporations eventually. For some this is a problem. Just as they dump musical acts that finally end up signing with a big label, they dump favored vendors that go corporate. Others, however, follow musical acts and favored companies loyally, taking pride in knowing it since before it was big.

Like most big companies, it gets that way by having its act together. This is a company that clearly has its act together. But, maintaining a unique identity while standardizing corporate practices isn't easily. So far, Celestial Seasonings seems to have made the transition well, but five years into a merger, after thirty years of independence, it may be too early to tell how things work out in the long term. Presumably, the benefits of a merger lie mostly in financing and in marketing at the wholesale level, and those are things that the tour didn't address.

Incidentally, on a scientific note, I was surprised to learn that white, green and black tea all come from the same plant. The white tea is the first growth of the season, the green tea is milled "fresh", and the black tea is "oxidized." Herbal "teas" are actually "infusions" and don't contain any of the tea plant at all.

1 comment:

Cassie Schoon said...

When I was in high school, I used to work as a dog walker and janitor at the vet clinic across the hiway from Celestial. There were days where I'd come out of the smelly dog kennels and catch a whiff of cinnamon, mint, clove or mate emanating from the factory.