Boh continues to thrive on Malaysian soil as a brand synonymous with the local tea-drinking culture. Caroline Russell, CEO of Boh Tea Plantations Sdn Bhd and third generation of the founding family, sits down for a cuppa and a chat with Anandhi Gopinath on the company's heritage, its legacy and its firm involvement with the local arts scene.
IN April, our performing arts scene welcomed the return of an annual event that celebrates the top performers in the industry over the past one year. The Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, better known as the Cammies, is our version of the Oscars — there's a red carpet, there are stars and their awards, and there is a big party. For the due recognition it gives to the hardworking members of the local performing arts industry, the Cammies has been a highly anticipated event since it was started in 2001 by Jenny Daneels and Kathy Rowland, the co-founders of online arts portal Kakiseni.com.
Daneels and Rowland gave up their stewardship of Kakiseni.com in 2010 and the Cammies staged a spectacular swan song as the industry waved goodbye to an event, which, for all its shortcomings, was sorely needed. Later that same year, Kakiseni.com was bought over by Low Ngai Yuen, and after a year's break she and her team relaunched the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, which was held two weeks ago.
One wonders what the corporate sponsor of the awards, Boh Tea Plantations Sdn Bhd, thought about the initial cancellation and how it feels about its re-emergence. We'll never know — the company's CEO Caroline Russell has only good things to say about the awards ceremony and the two teams that have managed the show.
"I've never made a comparison and I never will," Caroline says with a diplomatic smile, brushing her blonde hair away from her face. "Both teams have been extraordinarily passionate and committed. You get the sense that both teams are doing it for the love of it — it's not done for the money or to fuel some sort of ego trip. That's what makes it so appealing for us, when you know their hearts are in the right place. As a corporate sponsor, when there are a few hitches along the way you're prepared to forgive them when you see that the intentions are truly genuine."
We are at Boh's corporate office, a lovely colonial building off Jalan Ampang. It's an apt choice for them, looking at Boh's own British heritage — the founding family left England for Malaysia in the late 1800s and has run the business for three generations. But while Caroline's manners and habits are overwhelmingly English, she is 100% Malaysian. Born and raised here, Caroline has only the slightest tinge of a British accent and is extremely proud of her local roots.
With the resurrection of the Cammies, we thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with Caroline and talk to her about Boh's other CSR programmes and the company in general. She invited me to tea — naturally — at the Boh office, and it's hard to miss how fitting it is for the brand. Creaking timber floors, narrow staircases and that slightly musty smell of old books are a pleasant change to the shiny chrome fittings and carpeted offices a lot of companies favour. Combined with the whitewashed walls of the bungalow and the mature, tall trees outdoors, the sheer romanticism of it all is thoroughly charming.
Caroline, whose typically British wit and comportment is softened by a comfortable familiarity stemming from her Malaysian upbringing, is the perfect host. But although she is friendly, she's also a woman of few words. Everything she says relates back to the company and is almost never about herself or her family's history. For Caroline, the company always comes first — she sees herself as one part of the machinery that keeps it moving. Some CEOs have chosen to be synonymous with the company they front and it's a hugely successful marketing ploy, but Caroline doesn't subscribe to those ideals.
The Boh story began in 1870 with Caroline's great-grandfather, who arrived in what was then British-ruled Malaya with his five children. At the time, KL was a mishmash of tin miners' shanties, houses built by Chinese immigrants and palatial colonial-style buildings designed by British government architects — much like the one the Boh office occupies today.
"My great-grandfather was a printer by profession, and he had been employed by the British administration to set up a printing office in KL," Caroline says. "Prior to that time, all government publications came out of Singapore, and they wanted to set up KL as the administrative centre of Malaya."
One of his sons (Caroline's grandfather), John Archibald — who was better known as JA — returned to England to study, but spent his working life in Malaya. It had become home for the Russell family, and the young JA set about getting involved in a number of local enterprises. He was quite the entrepreneur and cleverly used his good looks to his advantage — armed with this fortunate gift of genetics, he then acquired the ability to speak five Chinese dialects and carefully cultivated relationships with wealthy tin miners.
JA soon found himself faced with a multitude of lucrative business opportunities. From tin mining, JA ventured into coal mining in Batu Arang, property development in Ipoh and construction in KL. In the early 1900s, he was awarded the contract to build the KL Railway Station.
Soon enough, JA saw the potential of tea as an important crop for Malaya, which until that time had been substantially dependent upon rubber and tin. Together with A B Milne, a veteran tea planter from Sri Lanka (what was then known as Ceylon), he applied for and was granted a land concession in Cameron Highlands in 1929.
He started small, as companies did then — he had just one steamroller, a few labourers and a few mules, but worked magic as he transformed steep jungle slopes into a highland tea garden. His timing couldn't have been better — Sir George Maxwell, a naturalist and the then British Resident of Perak, had just decided to transform Cameron Highlands into a hill station.
JA never got to see how well his tea plantation would fare as he died just a few years later at a young age of 50. His death coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930s and many of his businesses had to be sold. Tea, however, was his most enduring enterprise.
Boh's current chairman, Datuk Tristan Russell, was JA's only son and a year old when he lost his father, but would one day take over the family business. Representing the second generation of the Boh family, as it would turn out to be, the South Africa-raised, England-educated 22-year-old Tristan first joined the company in 1949. By then, World War II had taken its toll and the estates were mainly abandoned. Amid overgrown, 20ft-high tea bushes and tree ferns, much work was needed to restore the tea plantation to its former glory.
Under Tristan's stewardship, Boh gradually became quite an enigmatic brand. He displayed a penchant for marketing — something Caroline has inherited — and was behind what many Malaysians will remember as Mr Boh, the charming mascot of the brand that was one of the first televised company mascots in Asia.
As Boh went on to acquire new tea estates — it now has four — and expand into foreign markets like the US, United Arab Emirates, Japan, Singapore and Brunei, the third generation of the Russell family was preparing to join the family business, although it almost didn't happen.
"I had my primary education here but I went overseas to Scotland for my secondary and tertiary education," Caroline explains. "Like many young Malaysians who study aboard, I wasn't that keen to come home — I told my father ‘I like it better here, my friends are all here'. But my father was quite insistent that I come back, even if it was for a short while.
"Actually, what he said was, ‘You must learn something of the business. Women need to know these things'. I've subsequently taken him to task because his rationale at that time was that working here was a good back up in case you got married and things didn't work out. I've contested with him that this is good in its own right instead of just a backup plan," she laughs.
Upon returning home to Malaysia, Caroline began to enjoy working in the family business and realised she didn't want to return to Scotland at all. "When I came back, I knew that being here is what I wanted to do," she says, but with a much more subtle smile — I can sense the pride in her voice. She is Malaysian, after all, and is quite specific about it. A true-blue KL girl at heart, she keeps telling me.
A commerce graduate from Edinburgh University, Caroline joined Boh's marketing department first, just like her father had done. She grew to understand the way the company operated and what the market for tea was like at the time, developing an expertise in the marketing end of the business rather than the plantation part of it.
That didn't mean that she didn't visit it often — Caroline and her brother, although based in KL, spent much of their childhood in Boh's tea estates in Cameron Highlands. "I have lots of vague recollections, but not that many specific stories. One remembers more the feeling of it, I suppose. I take my children up there fairly often now, and it's that sense of space and openness and fresh, crisp air that I remember most of all," she says.
The romanticism of the tea estates isn't lost on her, despite the fact it's now a place of work. "As a child, one never sees what the challenges are… so one sees it as a place of retreat. Obviously I don't really regard it as that any longer," she quips. "But I do love going there… after one has finished one's work and you take a walk through the estate, it is wonderfully refreshing. The environment is very special, there's no doubt about that. There is a sense, when being there, of oneness with nature — particularly because scenically it's so lovely."
The Boh Tea Visitors Centre in Sungei Palas is a great way to see what the production process of tea is like and how much hard work it takes. But rare is the visitor who leaves without some sort of romantic notion in his head about what it must be like to work in such a beautiful setting. The hard labour is quickly forgotten, the only images that remain are the rows and rows of manicured tea bushes and the cool, crisp air.
"Those images do belie the fact that there are very considerable challenges in running an estate and working there," Caroline admits. "From an environmental perspective, the estates are very much as they were. But the realities of operating in today's economic environment are much more challenging than they were all those years ago." A major issue, she says, is staffing.
"Tea is essentially a very labour-intensive industry," she explains. "Malaysians have become more affluent and their expectations of work have changed. Most Malaysians, not unjustifiably, would much rather work in an air-conditioned factory than on a plantation where work is physically very hard. Working on an estate is also considered to be low status. So even if it remunerates competitively with other industries, Malaysians don't really want to do this work. We've had to become more and more dependent on foreign workers and that has a host of issues around it as well."
While the actual estates don't face much competition, the Boh brand does. That said, in Malaysia, Boh is to tea what Colgate is to toothpaste and Pampers is to disposable diapers — brand names that are synonymous with the products they manufacture. While that may seem like a huge compliment, it is as much a burden as it is a blessing because maintaining that kind of reputation isn't all that easy. Reconciling the past with the constant need to move forward is a challenge for all companies, even more so for a brand with a colourful history like Boh.
"I think that the heritage of the brand is a very intrinsic part of who we are, so the issue is that we can be perceived as old-fashioned," Caroline admits. "Looking at the demographic of Malaysians today, there's a high proportion of young people with different media habits and expectations. One has to be able to create that brand affinity among the Gen Y. You can't suppose nor take for granted that because you have a successful heritage, you always will be successful. Brands will die if they fail to keep pace — Dunlop was once synonymous with mattresses, but who talks about Dunlop now? If you fail to maintain the appeal, it can have very dramatic consequences."
There are quite a few examples of Malaysian companies that have done well, like the way Hor Yan Hor herbal tea has remained grounded in its Chinese herbal medicine identity while creating a contemporary aura for itself. Boh has done the same thing — respecting all those years of history, heritage and tradition while remaining connected to an expanding audience that is increasingly sophisticated and demanding.
"While it's good that Malaysian consumers have greater disposable income, that creates demands on a company — you have to be dynamic and innovative, you have to look ahead in terms of where the market is developing. You can't stand still at all! If you stand still and rest on your laurels, you will find the competitive pressure works against you. So with opportunities come challenges also," Caroline says, a little wearily.
A growing product range is one important way to stay ahead — from basic black teas, Boh's offerings now include flavoured black teas, herbal and fruit infusions, flavoured iced tea, and three-in-one teas sold in individual sachets for people on the go. The latest is the Teh Tarik Halia three-in-one, which is simply delicious.
The second step is communicating effectively with the market. According to Caroline, the company is utilising social media platforms like never before and it has been one of the biggest changes in terms of communicating the brand.
A third pillar, as it were, is Boh's approach to corporate social responsibility. Apart from programmes in the areas of community development with the Orang Asli community in Cameron Highlands, Boh also has a fairly substantial portfolio of environmental and wildlife conservation efforts. For example, it has supported the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in an elephant tracking and relocation programme and works with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to rehabilitate orang utan reserves in Sabah. Recently, it expanded its conservation agenda to include programmes with schoolchildren. And then, of course, is Boh's support of the arts with the Cammies, which may be its most visible CSR channel.
Caroline reveals that it was in 2001 when Kakiseni.com first approached Boh, which supported the arts purely on an ad-hoc basis at the time, to step in as sponsors for the Cammies. "It was a risk for us at that time — it was a new entity without any sort of track record of running awards and we didn't know if it would be well received by the community. But the proposal made sense and there was nothing else like it. There was an apparent need to draw some acknowledgment and appreciation for the industry at that time," she recalls.
No one was really expecting the Cammies to come to an end, least of all their proud corporate sponsor. As the event was staged for what everyone thought was the last time in 2010, Caroline admitted that she and her team were wondering if they could take it over.
"Various suggestions were submitted as to how the awards could continue to be run," she says. "We were very cautious about that because what we believed was the strength of the awards was its independence — Kathy and Jenny were not directly involved in the arts so there was no question of vested interest. No one else we knew had the capability nor the inside knowledge on how to do it and we also knew that having a professional event company or something to do it would be flawed."
Fortunately, Caroline did not have to wonder for a long time. Once Low and her team took over Kakiseni.com, discussions resumed and bore fruit this year for Boh. In fact, they have already submitted other proposals for Boh to extend its relationship with the arts, which Caroline says it is still considering.
Looking back, she feels that the Cammies have been a good association for Boh, despite the fact that from a branding perspective, it hasn't really been reaching quite the right target. "We took it on because we had aspirations beyond purely brand building. This is a CSR initiative and it's part of our way of building empathy with the brand," she says proudly.
That empathy also comes from years of being in the cupboards and shelves of Malaysians all over the country. Currently, Boh produces four million kilogrammes of tea per year, which works out to about 5.5 million cuppas per day.
Boh has grown with Malaysia, seeing it through the turbulent 1970s with the smiling, bow-tied mascot, Mr Boh; sailing through the 1980s with the Boh ada Ummph campaign; playing the unity card with the Boh Brings People Together tagline in the 1990s and carving out an identity for itself today as a homegrown brand that remains involved in the lives of all Malaysians.
Caroline is well aware that this success comes from a supportive marketplace that has provided a fertile soil for Boh to continuously grow and develop. "As Malaysia has done well, we have done well," Caroline says, smiling. "We have enormous stability, we've seen economic growth and a rise in affluence in the middle class, so a business like Boh has a lot to be thankful for."
The Cammies are just one way for Boh to return that favour and the industry is well and truly thankful for it.
This story appeared in The Edge on May 14, 2012.