Published 06 April 2014 20:56, Updated 07 April 2014 10:43
Maryanne Shearer at lunch at Movida. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
Maryanne Shearer keeps describing the people in her life as “gorgeous”. Her personal assistant: gorgeous. Her family’s nannies: gorgeous. The mentor who helped navigate the tea industry in the early days of her pioneering retail chain T2: gorgeous. The store manager who recently cried with happiness when she was asked to run T2’s debut London store because she could finally marry an Englishman: gorgeous. All of them.
Such hyperbole usually sparks a cynical reflex in me, but today I’m relieved.
When I’d previously met Shearer, whose T2 teas count Liquorice Legs and Buddha’s Tears among its best-sellers, I’d found her friendly, but measured; a successful entrepreneur, but not likely to give much away.
In the lead-up to our Thursday appointment, I’d been trying to quash concerns it could turn out to be the least entertaining Lunch with the AFR yet. The worries did not dissipate straight away. Shearer has chosen a midday lunch. When I arrive at 11.55am, she is already seated.
Dressed head to toe in black – standard wear, she says, allows her to “disappear” – Shearer appears almost sombre in contrast with the cream-painted brick walls decked with cheery vintage advertising posters and mirrors that give the intimate room some space to breathe.
We are eating at Melbourne’s Movida, the Spanish tapas restaurant that turns away hopeful city diners most nights. But so far, the restaurant is yet to fill. She shoots me a wide, familiar smile and we exchange a kiss on the cheek. She asks warmly how I’ve been since we travelled to an event together five months ago.
It’s that last meeting that looms in my mind. In October, we sat in a Mercedes shuttle van driving from Paris to France’s champagne region of Reims, where Shearer was to be honoured as a winner of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year. She explained that she generally avoided the media. T2 was not about her and she had never felt comfortable opening up for profiles, nor seen the need.
That stance shone through in September when Shearer sold T2 to Unilever which, with brands such as Omo and Rexona, is also the globe’s largest wholesaler of tea, through brands such as Lipton and Bushells. Here was a story of a successful Australian entrepreneur being picked up by one of the globe’s most successful conglomerates that garnered just two media reports: the Anglo-Dutch’s local chairman gave some brief comments to AFR Weekend and The Courier-Mail reported a bland statement from Unilever’s president of refreshment.
The price was undisclosed and the only dollar sign in the reporting was annual revenue of $57 million. Shearer didn’t say a word.
Yet here we are, embarking on what’s meant to be an open, spirited conversation complete with some refreshments – a bit stronger than tea – to lubricate the chat.
Shearer laps up the waitress’s suggestion that we don’t even bother looking at the menu, saying she’d “love to be fed”. She opts for a gewurztraminer and riesling blend after asking for something crisp and light. I follow her lead.
As we begin chatting, pausing to munch the first tapas plate of bite-sized anchovy-topped crackers with smoked tomato sorbet, it’s clear that although some topics still make Shearer take a longer-than-usual pause, my fear of a lame lunch is unfounded.
Close to the end of our way through our first glass of S.C. Pannell “Aromatico” from the Adelaide Hills, after covering plenty of ground, I ask what has changed. What is this normally media-shy woman doing at lunch baring all to a journalist?
“A lot of people are asking now,” she says after a long pause. “Now the business is much bigger and Unilever have bought the company, I think there is a story and it’s nice for people to know . . . the truth.”
And while this is no exposé, Shearer is up for providing an honest account. Building a business is a “process”, she says. “And if there is a learning in there for some young person who wants to do their own thing – one little snippet that helps them make the right decision – then that makes it worthwhile, because it is a journey.”
Shearer and her business partner, Jan O’Connor, opened their first T2 store in the heart of hip Melbourne – Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street – in 1996. The pair had met while O’Connor was at department store Myerand Shearer was at mei + picchi, a supplier of mannequins and retail fitout needs, working as a consultant to fashion clients.
Originally the women wanted to start a homewares chain, but the venture stalled when they realised bigger, stronger brands such as Country Road had similar ideas. “We lost our confidence, I suppose,” she says.
Sitting in O’Connor’s North Melbourne apartment, having a cuppa of course, the pair gazed at the table filled with cups and saucers – their first homewares imports – and stumbled on plan B: a premium tea retailer. T2 would be a pioneer. Excited by how quickly crucial elements fell into place – mentor Bill Bennett, one of the country’s biggest tea importers, would help; a vacant shopfront in the ideal location; a cute name (“tea, there’s two of us, let’s call it T2”) – they cobbled together some funds.
Prawn ceviche and a delicious cold-smoked Spanish mackerel with pinenut gazpacho sorbet fuel the narrative.
Shearer leant financially on her then relatively new boyfriend, Bruce Crome. Twenty years her senior and divorced, Crome had built serious wealth from listing an engineering firm. Nineteen years later, Shearer is keen to promote Crome’s role, too. The first two times she mentions T2’s “guardian angel”, she uses both first name and surname: Bruce Crome. I imagine him as a film star – a thought bubble reaffirmed when she describes the father of their three kids as “my Jack Nicholson”.
Crome was integral in pulling the two creative spirits behind T2 into line when their lack of financial acumen threatened to end the story before it started, Shearer says.
Just under a year after opening their first store, they opened a second in St Kilda, but 12 months later it had to close. Brunswick Street was operating well but cash flow was a conundrum. Despite both women feeling burnt by the early failure, they went after a second store again – this time in Melbourne’s new shopping mall, Chadstone. This only “exploded” the cash flow problem, she says.
At the same time Shearer, then 38, gave birth to her first child, a daughter, which put demands on her time and strain on a “deteriorating” work partnership. O’Connor left in 2001; Crome and Shearer bought her out. Shearer says she and O’Connor were never close friends; both were creative but neither was particularly skilful with finances.
Eager to get the story straight, Shearer is talking rapidly and I’m listening intently, so much so that plates appear without introduction. We laugh that we don’t know what this clam-looking dish is – it’s delicious anyway.
As T2 grew, Shearer pointed her focus solely to the products and stores and left the finance to Crome, who became much more hands-on and, up until the Unilever sale, was the “offsider” to chief executive Nick Bennett.
Shearer says her vision has always been to break the rules on tea, epitomised by T2’s sometimes bizarre, often intriguing flavours, such as Melbourne Breakfast, Creme Brulee and Gone Surfing. Customers looking for a fresh but high-end retail experience welcomed the shops’ slick, black fittings that contrast with the popping bright colours of the product. And no advertising – they relied on the word of mouth of loyal customers.
By 2007, T2 was humming and, although Shearer had grand plans, Crome became reluctant to keep pouring “the family fortune” into it. They received an approach from retail players Jonathan Dan and Phillip Blanco, who were behind World Wide Retail Investments. Blanco was the former boss of franchise Gloria Jeans and is an investor in fast-food chains Mad Mex and Snag Stand.
This is a topic Shearer doesn’t remember fondly: “Someone approached us to buy half the business and we sold it . . . which wasn’t necessarily a good idea.” She agrees with my theory that their contrasting growth strategies – the main disagreement – stemmed from Blanco’s and Dan’s previous experience in fast food, as opposed to T2’s selling little luxuries.“T2 is about people and the customer. I never make a decision for a buck.”
Shearer and Crome bought back 25 per cent of T2 from Blanco, but Dan stayed on as a minority investor. The buyback was a minor financial loss, but “such a relief”, she says, adding that Dan became a family friend – but continued to ask tough questions on the board. So does she regret bringing on investors? “I don’t regret it . . . actually I do regret it,” she says, pausing for less than a heartbeat. “But what I learnt was priceless. You’ve got to be careful.”
Partnerships have always proved a challenge for Shearer, which explains her reluctance when Unilever first approached. But the price was right and T2 can now reach a global audience quickly. T2’s London store, the first overseas base outside New Zealand, will open in April, with New York to follow this year.
Unilever has kept Shearer on a 12-month contract, but she wants to stay on as managing director for five to 10 years. Shearer remains coy on the sale price and even admonishes herself over calling it a “deal”.
But she agrees the founders “did well” out of the buyout, allowing family ski holidays in Japan and an upcoming safari in Africa.
We await our last drinks: her a T2 peppermint tea, me – a bit guiltily – a macchiato.
The wealth she enjoys in the upmarket Middle Park in Melbourne is a far cry from her childhood in the northern suburbs where her mother worked multiple jobs, including in a shoe factory, to provide for her three daughters. “She indulged me in time and I just had a lot of time on my hands to draw and make things,” she says, adding her mother has been indispensible as a carer of her three children throughout T2’s rise.
Shearer hopes she can instil values of hard work in her daughter, 14, and twin boys, 12, but admits their “extraordinary” lifestyle is a world away from her experience. “Bruce says to me all the time, ‘it’s too much, you’re over-indulging them’.”
Helping with homework has humbled her, she says, and is a nice change to leading 700 people and opening two new stores a month. “You come home and it’s simply, ‘mum, help me spell this word’,” she says. “It’s quite gorgeous.”