For those with the job title of “CTO” on their business cards, the “T” typically stands for technology. In Heather Howell’s case, it stands for tea. She is the chief tea officer, and one of four owners, of Rooibee Red Tea.
Founder Jeff Stum created the bottled tea in Louisville, Ky., in 2009. A year later, Howell was the second person brought in for the executive leadership team.
“I came in 2010, and we formed it into a Delaware C corporation and started to formalize the business,” Howell said. “We have had 60 percent compounded annual growth year over year.”
Just a few short years ago, Stum and Howell sold the bottled tea out of their cars at farmers markets and small retail outlets. By the end of 2011, the product had nationwide distribution.
“It’s great to see something healthy and good for you, and organic, coming out of Kentucky and being shipped to all 50 states,” Howell said. “We’re in conversations now with a Canadian distributor.”
In 2013, Howell secured permanent placement at six Costco warehouses in the United States, including the Lexington location. Rooibee Red Tea is also sold at all Kroger stores in central Kentucky. Sav’s Grill has offered all five flavors of the tea from its early days of production.
“I was one of the first ones to carry it in Lexington,” said Sav’s Grill owner Mamadou Savane. “It’s pretty good tea. People like it.”
Sometimes his customers buy the bottled tea to take home, he said. When they drink it at the restaurant, he recycles the 12-ounce glass bottles.
“From a sustainable standpoint, it is really important to our brand,” Howell said of the glass bottles. “Glass goes back to sand.”
Low in tannins and high in antioxidants, Rooibee Red Tea is made from the naturally caffeine-free rooibos bush from South Africa. The product is brewed, steeped, bottled and packaged in Louisville, where Howell had been working in human resources at Humana before being brought on board with Rooibee Red Tea.
“I’m passionate about food and health,” she said. “This was a great opportunity and I took it. It was a huge risk, but it has paid off.”
The Ohio native played volleyball for Eastern Kentucky University in the 1990s. She earned a degree in communication studies/human resources, with a minor in marketing, at EKU, then coached at the University of North Florida for a year.
“I loved coaching, but what I didn't love so much were the parents,” Howell said. She loves the sport and still teaches volleyball camps, but after trading in her whistle for an MBA at Louisville’s Bellarmine University, she has spent the rest of her career in management. She oversees the day-to-day business operations of Rooibee Red Tea.
With nine employees, the Kentucky-based tea company is small. Howell said one of the most challenging aspects of getting national placement is competing with multibillion-dollar companies.
“In some ways, it was being in the right place at the right time,” she said of her brand’s success, “being fearless and never letting people know how big or small you were at the time. Sheer determination and passion and hard work is what's got us to this point.”
In late 2013, Rooibee Red Tea became one of four beverage companies to be placed in Google’s headquarters in California. “We were there with 100 food and beverage companies, competing for a spot in their microkitchens,” she said. “We gave out 6,477 samples in three hours.”
The Kentucky company is shipping 500 cases of bottled tea per month to the Googleplex. The product is also available 15 minutes up the road at Facebook’s commissary in Menlo Park, Calif. Howell, who chairs the National Association of Women MBAs, reached out to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO.
“I shot her a quick note and she responded, ‘I’m so happy a female-owned business is in our commissary,’” Howell said.
Inspiring other women is a goal of Howell’s, and she speaks to women’s groups and high school students regularly. Contributing to the community is also important to Howell and Rooibee Red Tea.
“Every day we have something going out of this office to contribute to children and families,” she said. “This brand consistently gives back.”
Tea is a multibillion-dollar category, which, according to Howell, is not slowing down.
“As a business owner, I can tell you it's such a blessing to be on the shelf, because it's incredibly competitive,” she said. “Consumers are demanding healthy products, and we fit that niche.”
To learn more about Rooibee Red Tea, visit www.rooibeeredtea.com.