Michael Harney Interview:
This is file 58, cycle 2. This is Jean McMillen. Today’s date is July 11, 2017. I am interviewing Michael Harney of Harney and sons Fine Teas. He is going to talk about the tea business and anything else he chooses to. We’ll start with the geological information.
JM:What is your name?
MH:Michael D. Harney
MH:August 12, 1955
JM:Where were you born?
MH:Ithaca, New York
JM:Your parents’ names?
MH:John Harney and Elyse Deubline Harney. My mother was of German stock out of Bergen.
JM:You have siblings?
MH:I have an older brother John Jr. and my younger siblings are Keith, Elyse and Paul.
JM:How did you come to the area?
MH:In a car! My parents drove from Pittsburg to Cornwall. They ran the Covered Bridge Inn it was called in West Cornwall and then moved up to the White Hart Inn in about 1958-59.
JM:When did Harney & Sons Fine Tea begin?
MH:My father started in 1983. I do not have an actual day; he never really told me.
JM:Where did it start, and there have been several locations?
MH:It started in the White Hart Inn in the basement. My father was running the White Hart Inn and then he had an Englishman called Stanley Mason selling him tea there. Stanley eventually decided to hang up his spurs altogether. He then sold the business to the business partners of the White Hart Inn. That was Sarum Tea. My father worked there from 1970 to 1983: then in the middle 1980’s the partners decided to get out of the hotel business. My father used that opportunity to start his own tea company Harney & Sons Tea in 1983.
JM:Did it ever have its function with in family home?
MH:After the main partner sold the White Hart Inn, the location that my father chose and the only location he could choose was the basement of the house on Robin Hill Lane. At the time he was 53
years old. He really did not have any savings. It was difficult as he had been an employee so he only had so much money and no retirement prospect. He then started Harney & Sons Tea in the basement of his house. Paul used to carry the tea chests down when he was in high school and also at Salisbury Central grammar school. The UPS truck would come down the road, the dog would bark at him, and that is where it started. He then built a little addition, a garage which is where I saw it in 1988 when I joined him. At that time they decided to buy the house (11 East Main Street Ed.) across from the White Hart Inn where they had worked all those years. My parents lived in for maybe the last 30 years. They then put the tea company in there as there was more space. That was for 5 or 6 years; then we outgrew that place and moved to old garages between Lakeville and Salisbury down a little road. We were there for 5 or 6 years. We outgrew that. Then my brother talked us into moving across state line. I could not imagine working in New York State. We are a Connecticut corporation, but we did. It was a good decision. We rented for a couple of years in Millerton and then bought the building where we are speaking now in 2003. (5723 Route 22 Ed.) So we have had this for about 14 years.
JM:Then you dad never worked in the building that used to be the Herrick Travel Agency which now houses Churchill Builders on Main Street in Lakeville?
MH:No he never worked there to my knowledge.
JM:That was Sarum Tea and was that Stanley Mason?
MH:No that was just a little side business that Reese Harris’ wife Ginny ran
JM:You sort of answered why he train for tea; it was a career change, a major one.
MH;Yes it was a career change. He had back in the 1970’s Stanley Mason teach him and get him contacts and things like that. When I joined him, he had a very basic set of teas that Stanley had taught him about. He had some makings of good things. I always say that the business all goes back to him in the b=very beginning where he had a friend that had the Ritz Carlton in Boston so we then started selling to hotels. Then there was a call from a gentleman who said, “Listen my name is Chuck Williams. I have some stores. One opened right across from the Ritz Carlton in Boston. I would like to have your teas in my stores.” So we started selling to stores. Then the other thing that my father had done, he had gotten the rights to 800-TEA-TIME because 800 numbers were just coming out at that time. That was how we started selling to consumers. If you look at those three things: specialty stores, hotels and food service, and directly to consumers, those are the three main things that we still rely on today. My father was very important. Before I worked there he had already developed the Harney & Sons and mater tea blenders and our logo of the two lions and the three tea leaves. A lot of that stuff had been done when I joined him in 1988.
JM:He was a very clever man.
MH:It appears that way.
JM:What were Stanley Mason’s credentials?3.
MH:Stanley’s family had been in the tea business for three generations starting in the 1860’s on. They had been in London selling tea. Stanley had come over in the 1940’s to work for Brook Bond which is a big firm in England to develop the US market. In the 1960’s he had been put out to retirement. So he settled up in the Taconic area of Salisbury. He had Sarum tea up there.
JM:How long did your father train with Mr. Mason?
MH:I think Stanley left about ten years. With Harney & Sons we very rarely saw him so he was out when I joined in 1988.
JM:How many teas did you start with?
MH:I think it was around 7 or 8.
JM:Did you put out a catalogue?
MH:We didn’t really have a catalogue; we probably just had a listing. Of course there wasn’t any internet at the time. I did our first catalogue a couple of years later. It was probably in the early 1990’s that we did our first catalogue.
JM:How did you get involved because you were not in it originally?
MH:That is true. It was in the late 1970’s helping out downstairs in the basement of the White Hart but I then went off to college and studied Hospitality Management and Hotel Administration at Cornell University like my father. Then I ran a hotel in Chicago: I was trying to keep in the hotel business. My father really did not have much of a business in the early 1980’s. The tea company was a curiosity. The people I worked for were shocked when I went to join him. I was one of the youngest general managers in my 20’s and had done that for 8 years. I wanted to move on and do something, perhaps another hotel but I couldn’t find a deal for a couple of years. I did not have Donald Trump’s Deal-Making abilities. I was looking for something to do. My father came into Chicago for a trade show. I went to it. One of the people there said, “Why don’t you go work for your father? ” I started thinking about it and within a couple of months I was working with him.
JM: Do you enjoy it?
JM:What is your current position?
JM:Your co vice president is Paul?
MH:We are both vice presidents. My father is still President but he doesn’t attend the meetings. (John Harney died June 17, 2014. Ed.)
JM:But he is there is spirit.4.
JM:There are 2 facilities that you now have.
JM:What is the address of this one?
MH:5732 Route 22, Millerton, New York
JM:What function does this facility serve? What do you do here?
MH:`We make dry tea here; dry teabags, loose teas and there is also the headquarters where all our administrative staff are.
JM:Now there is a second facility.
MH:Right in Hudson, New York.
JM:I was thinking of the tea tasting facility.
MH:Oh we have two shops; that is true.
JM:The one I am thinking of is in Millerton. What is the address of that one?
MH:They call that Railroad Plaza.
JM:Your lady wife runs that?
MH:Brigitte Harney is the manager of that and Alex Harney, my first born son, runs the restaurant side. We have a shop in Soho, New York and my son Emeric, my second son, runs that.
JM:He is available if you want to say hi to him.
JM: I may do that. I still want to get Paul. In the facility at Railroad Plaza you have a tasting center, a restaurant, and a shop?
MH:That is all true.
JM: I having been here on tour and there as a customer, they are both very interesting facilities. It is a nice combination.
JM:How have the business developed over the years?
MH:Well we started as my father had done and we have gone from there. The tea business at the beginning was a curiosity. I remember it took us quite some time to reach our first million in sales. I remember that day. They used to tell us that the first million was the hardest. I did not understand what they were saying. Now it does make sense. So the business has grown; we still have the basic core there specialty shops, upscale food service, and the consumer. Now what we have layers on top of that is some of the larger stores in the United States. We have Barnes & Noble Bookstores, Target, and Walmart that sell our teas. When we first got into the business Barnes & Noble was still small company which then became large and dominates. Now it is slowing down as people are not buying as many physical books. Target and Walmart were not in the grocery business, but have become dominant players in the grocery business. Those are different ways there. The other thing that we have evolved is that exports are consumed in all 7 continents and sold in 6 of those continents. Down in Antarctica there is no shops. They do consume it down there at the NASA space station.
JM:This location has how many staff?
MH:We have over 140 here.
JM:And you hire locally?
MH:Yeah we hire most people locally. They tell us that other than hospitals and schools, we are one of the larger employers around.
JM:At Railroad Plaza how many staff work there?
MH:It is about 10. All around we employ 200.
JM:That is a large number in this rural area.
MH:That is what they say.
JM:You get your teas from?
MH:China, India, Japan, we got in some biscuits from England, we got in some tea from India yesterday, orange peel from Egypt so it comes from lots of different places.
JM: Now I don’t remember if it was your mother or your sister (sister Ed.) that said that the reason you did an orange cinnamon spice tea was that you served freshly squeezed orange juice at the White Hart and there were so many rind left that your dad decided to do something with them.
MH:That is a possibility. If my mother said it, it has to be true.
JM:Are all of your teas blended?
MH:Not a, some of the teas are sold just by themselves. We buy very expensive teas say $750 per kilo or $350 a pound which are sold by themselves just like a single malt Scotch. Then you can also do a blended scotch. Our hot cinnamon spice is blended.
JM:That is one of your more popular teas?
MH:That is our most popular.
JM:Do you have a catalogue now?
MH:Yes, we continue to have a catalogue. Some people have gone out of the catalogue business but we think it does serve a certain portion of the business. It is a reminder of Harney and Sons Tea to people. We have that. Honestly 5% of our people call in now-a-days or send in a note, but 95% is done on the web.
JM:Do you have someone in charge of marketing?
MH:We have different kinds of marketing; we have consumer marketing which would be the web site and things like that and my son Emeric. Then there is wholesale marketing which is a mixture of Paul and myself. Paul Harney is the youngest member.
JM:Do you plan to expand?
MH:We expand all the time; it beats contacting. Paul is under 50 so we have mouths to feed. He has a new mouth, teething. Teething tea Harney! She is a very cute girl; I saw her yesterday.
JM:You have family members in the business. What is the name of your third son?
MH:Bertram is not in the business but we’ll see what happens with him.
JM:Is there anything about the business I have not asked that I should before we close?
MH:I would not know what you have not asked.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add?
MH:No we are very happy. We started from nothing and have grown into something for which my father had a lot to do. If is a family affair now, but it is one that has been good for us. We have become an international business one that certain large companies have asked if we wish to sell to them. We are resisting that call. We think that we can bring much more to the table, help out the local area and keep a nice employment base up here.
JM:Thank you so much.
MH:You are welcome.