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Students and alumnus join forces in Martinsburg tea business
Shepherd student Arthur Ebeling founded Eastern Isles Teas and Tonics in July 2007 and runs the business with former Shepherd tennis teammate Eric Stephenson '07 and current student Felipe Oliveira. Arthur is a senior marketing major from Martinsburg, Felipe is a junior business major from Natal, Brazil, and Eric is a 2007 business graduate from Harpers Ferry. The company, which offers organic tea for sale online and at local health food stores, recently opened a tea house in downtown Martinsburg.
As an athlete at Shepherd, Arthur became focused on his health and began drinking tea daily. "Health was a critical part of my lifestyle and as I began to learn more about tea, I saw that there was a scarcity of quality tea," he said. Eastern Isles offers loose-leaf tea which is richer and offers more complex flavor. "I saw a need, and I was really passionate about reading about the different blends and properties," said Arthur. "I did some market research, and I saw that tea was a $6 billion industry with significant growth forecast. I saw a great commercial opportunity there."
Arthur recently entered the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) contest designed for students who have started their own businesses. The competition offers the winner $100,000 for the business as well as national exposure including a feature story in Entrepreneur Magazine. To enter the competition a student must be nominated and submit an application with data about the business including financials and an operating plan. After making it through the first two rounds, Eastern Isles has one more presentation to go before the final, held in Chicago, Illinois.
"There are 20 people left worldwide, and we are presenting in a group of five or six. If we can place in the top two, we will receive the trip to Chicago, all expenses paid," said Arthur.
Both Arthur and Eric feel their time at Shepherd prepared them for running their own business. "In coming to Shepherd I have made some terrific contacts with professors, particularly Dr. Mark Patton, associate professor of business administration. He has been an invaluable resource by helping us with strategic planning, pitching to distributors, and considering our cost structure. Dr. Patton forces you to think about things you might normally neglect because he has had so many experiences in his professional career," said Arthur.
"He has been there and done what we are just trying to get started doing, and he is a great asset to have in an advisory role," said Eric. "Dr. Patton knows a lot about business in general, especially at an international level which is where we hope to be in the near future."
"All the professors in the business program have been really supportive of what we are doing. They have been accommodating about the fact that owning your own business is demanding and time intensive and it can be hard to manage that with your concurrent academic demands. It's nice when they understand that dilemma," said Arthur.
Owning a business has been a learning experience for the two. "I think it has been a test of character, a test of will," said Arthur. "You definitely learn the values of patience and persistence. You aren't always going to have immediate success, and you are going to have to work hard before you see any type of apparent reward. Another important thing to note is that you have to be able to learn quickly and move quickly."
"Always have confidence that you can do it, and you will surprise yourself at what you can actually do and obstacles you can overcome," said Eric. "Prioritization is also important."
Both also stress the importance of allocating capital with limited resources. "Cost effectiveness is key; it is just so overlooked," said Eric.
"Especially when you are under-capitalized," added Arthur.
Despite experiencing some wariness from family and friends, Arthur and Eric have maintained confidence in their dream. "Sometimes you just have to have the conviction that your vision is promising and you have got to hold to that steadfastly and not let anything undermine that confidence," said Arthur.
Another important initiative for the Eastern Isles Teas and Tonics owners was supporting One Percent for the Planet. "I thought the business would be a great vehicle to affect change. One Percent for the Planet is an international coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations that allocate one percent of their annual revenue to environmental causes," said Arthur. They are also developing a line of t-shirts with all proceeds going to One Percent for the Planet.
Eastern Isles is relocating to a larger location at 205 North Queen Street in Martinsburg. The new space will allow the business to expand their food service as well.
"The community response has been almost all positive," said Eric. "We are considered different and unique and that has served us in a positive way."
Arthur says the business also serves as a venue for the arts and music. "We have poetry readings and open mike nights. In some ways this is a cultural community installment," he said.
The next big venture for Eric and Arthur is positioning their product to enter into the bottled tea ready-to-drink (RTD) market. "The preparation is extensive," said Arthur. "We are hopefully going to be partnering with a company in Ithaca, New York. A team of food chemists will help with the development of a prototype and the testing of shelf life, nutritional analysis, and help with the product marketing."
"The reason we are focusing there is because 40 percent of tea sales are in the RTD market. We are actually looking to provide a product line for kids that is healthier than the sugar-laden juices you see. To start we are looking to secure major regional distributors and with that confidence move on to national distribution," said Arthur.
"To get the distributors you have to show how you can distinguish yourself from competitors and establish who your competitors are," said Eric. "For example, Lipton wouldn't be considered a competitor; we are more of an honest tea. Our tea combines the organic and health aspects and is more flavorful."
The teas will be available in several different lines including one that takes advantage of superfruits that have two to three times the amount of antioxidants found in regular fruits including goji berry, acai, mangosteen, and noni. They plan to market 10 to 20 different flavors with a white or green tea base. Shepherd graphic design alumna Abby Sandy '07 designed the label used on the bottle.
As for the future, Ebeling and Stephenson see the business increasing distribution tracks for the current product line and developing a Chinese herbology line. "In the next three years we are looking at expanding the national and regional distribution. I think it will be a matter of sustaining our effort and developing new product lines," said Arthur.
They are in talks with Wegmans and Healthway to carry their tea. Eastern Isles is looking at taking the company international and is using partner Felipe Oliveira's connections to try and introduce Eastern Isles to Brazil. Eastern Isles also has several production deals in the works as far as licensing and water agreements.
Eric and Arthur say their Shepherd education has served them well in this endeavor. "We have been glad for the help and interest we have received from the faculty at Shepherd," said Arthur. "We try to serve as ambassadors for the University and are proud to be students there."
"Everywhere I go, I am proud to say I am a Shepherd alumnus," said Eric.
Eastern Isles tea is available online at www.easternisles.com and at several locations including Maggies, Mellow Moods, and the Crystal Shop in Shepherdstown; Good Natured and Healthy Lifestyle in Martinsburg; Westbrook Designs in Morgantown; and at their tea house in downtown Martinsburg.
UPDATE: Posted 11-12-08
UPDATE: Posted 10-8-08
Arthur was interviewed August 15 by CNN.com Live. He is featured on CNN's Web site as part of its Young People Who Rock series.
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Eric Stephenson '07 and Arthur Ebeling
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