The School of Architecture attracted Todd B. Rubin to Syracuse University. He graduated from the five-year program in 2004 and went to work in the New York City office of Gensler, a global architectural firm. He worked there four years and had finished a design for a Times Square building when, he said, the stars aligned to join The Republic of Tea, his family’s business.
The tea company was started by Mel and Patricia Ziegler and Bill Rosenzweig. The Zieglers had founded Banana Republic clothing company and sold it to Gap. Next, they teamed up with Rosenzweig to start The Republic of Tea in 1992. They wrote a book, also called “The Republic of Tea,” about starting their latest company. Rubin said his father, Ron, was an entrepreneur who reads a business book a week. He picked up the book in 1994, looked up the authors, and bought their company.
Rubin has taken over from his father and now is Minister of Evolution – CEO and president in traditional terms. The Republic of Tea is run as a whimsical company where the 133 employees are known as ministers, the brick-and-mortar outlets like Wegmans are known as embassies, and the customers are known as citizens. Rubin’s father remains involved as the Minister of Tea. His mother, Pam, is the Minister of Indulgence.
The company headquarters, marketing, and sales are in the San Francisco Bay area. E-commerce is based in St. Louis. The production and shipping department is in southern Illinois. Rubin travels the world, procuring specialty tea: “Specialty tea means we procure from the five origins for tea: China, Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, and Japan. Specialty tea also references premium tea grown at high elevation.”
Rubin has maintained ties to Syracuse University, donating his time, money, and expertise. For instance, last fall, he spoke at SU’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, and this fall, from his Bay-area office, he gave 16 tips on leadership and entrepreneurship to students gathered via Zoom for a Launchpad Fireside Chat.
Give me your advice, five or so tips, for effective leadership – perhaps a summary of tips you gave students in the Fireside Chat.
I’ll narrow it down and choose five. One is taking risks. That’s business – you take risks. Sometimes we throw things up against the wall. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they don’t. If you don’t take that risk, you’ll never know what would come of it.
Reading and researching are important. Read every day. You need to know what’s going on in your industry. For me, that’s what is going on in the food industry and the beverage industry. But read broadly and expand your horizons. I get The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal delivered to my house daily. I get a lot of trade-industry magazines. I read articles online. It’s important to me to be knowledgeable of what’s going on in the industry and in the world. That’s helped me as a business leader.
Next, I don’t know how you would say it, but I call it using unique communication. You want to set yourself apart from others. Early on, my parents instilled in me that you send a thank you note to anybody who gave you a gift. So I send thank you notes. I send birthday cards. I wrote 300 holiday cards to employees and our brand ambassadors. Everything’s handwritten. People email me, and they’re like: Wow! You sent me a handwritten note. Thank you!
I call it using unique communication. You make a mark. You set yourself apart differently from others.
I’d say number four is listening to your customers. When my father and I were talking about me coming to work for the company, I was like: I have no business background. What would I do?
He said: I would start you in sales, because I need you out in the field, listening to customers, and hearing what people are saying about the brand, or what they need, or what customers are looking for.
That experience instilled listening to feedback. At our website, people can write in to voice a complaint or a compliment or check on an order. We call it a query, and it goes to customer service, but it also comes to me. So I read every query that comes in to our company. People send ideas and sometimes they lead us to a business opportunity. I see the queries come in on the weekend, and I’ll respond directly to the customer, saying I’m the owner and appreciate your feedback.
The fifth, I think, is having fun. More recently, I think of it as self-care. As hard as you work as an entrepreneur, a leader, it’s hard to take that time to recharge and do self-care. That might mean you unplug for a bit, have some kind of guilty pleasure running in the background, taking a trip or traveling, or exploring your own kind of passions. I am passionate about theater, live theater, and seeing shows. I’ve invested in a few shows.
What qualities do you see in good leadership or in leaders that you admire?
I think they have honesty, they have a good moral foundation, and they definitely have empathy.
Tell me more about empathy. Why is that an admirable quality?
The people in your company are what makes the company successful, so you should show that empathy and care. I’m not empathetic because I run a company. I was raised to care about others and empathize in different circumstances.
The more you show empathy as a leader the more it builds trust and loyalty. It’s like: They really care about me as a person, so I’m willing to work harder for this individual because there’s that level of empathy.
I was telling you that I’m sending hand-written holiday cards and thanking all of our employees for their contributions this year. That’s just who I am. I could have my assistant write everything out, or I could have it typed out, or I could just send an email, but I think for someone to receive that in the mail, they know Todd took his time and cares about me. It’s like: I want to be here. I want to be behind this leader.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
It’s the reverse. Not having empathy or not caring.
I think you need to respect everyone. Poor leaders do not respect others.
If there’s poor communication, that can lead to a lot of confusion.
For people to succeed, what do you think people want or need from their leaders?
Respect and honesty.
I think people want to understand that there’s a vision and strategy and why they’re coming to work every day and what their impact is on the company.
We’re an essential business, and we’ve been open the entire time of the pandemic. Most of our people do not work from home. So I think it’s important for people to know that it’s safe and it’s comfortable to come to work.
I like to ask about tests of leadership. So this might be time to talk about Covid, how it tested your leadership, and how you handled the test.
All of a sudden in March, everything changes and shuts down and it’s: How are we going to as a company continue being successful? A lot of people want tea for health and wellness and we need to be able to ship and provide for our customers, but also keep our employees safe.
We operate in three different states with different sets of rules from the states and from the national government We also have a remote staff whose job is traveling and being at our customers – most of it’s air travel. Customers have different rules about vendors coming in.
We quickly established a task force. We’re now meeting weekly. We were meeting every other day. We basically created our own kind of Covid timeline and plan, instituting policies and procedures, and making sure we have enough safety equipment and what needs to happen at each office – from temperature taking through 40 pages of notes. Then, we had to broadcast that out to the rest of the organization.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic and everyone was asking: What can we do? What do we do?
That task force team made a difference about what can be done and not done to make sure everyone remains safe and healthy.
I think it tested my leadership, where I was doing what was important to make sure that my employees stayed safe. I could go by what the state of Illinois was saying or the state of Missouri or the national government. We use those as resources, but we weren’t reliant upon them because there were different opinions or different mandates and so doing what was best for the employees and being in their shoes and what would make them feel comfortable.
I think everyone has felt safe throughout this whole time. I think we’ve been flexible. Some people were a little uncomfortable. We had to practice what we preach. I wear a mask all the time. I’m wiping down around the office. I think it is important and necessary to make sure people see I practice what I preach about health and safety.
During the early pandemic shutdown, our production and shipping employees were working all kinds of hours. We increased pay and we did things that we could help, like gas cards for driving to work.
Normally, we do a barbecue when we hit milestones, but you can’t do shared lunches and gatherings of our ministers like we have in the past. So we ended up buying packaged lunches for every person or giving gift cards so they can get their own meals. I think doing that showed that we cared about our employees, we realized they had fears, and we were making sure that they stayed healthy and safe. We showed that the company was mindful of the challenging time and that they were important to help the company keep going.
It goes back to empathy.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I was in student government. I went to Clayton High School near St. Louis, Missouri. People asked: What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was younger, one answer was an air pilot. As I got a little older, I wanted to be president. (Laughter) So I had an interest in politics. One summer I did an internship as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. In school, I was always the kind of leader in the group and involved in a lot of extracurricular activities and had different leadership experiences through that.
I grew up in Southern Illinois, in Mount Vernon. It was a small community. Our family decided to move to St. Louis for me to get a better high school education. In the Clayton school district, you went to grade school, middle school, and high school together. It was hard coming in from the outside, where all these students know each other for forever. So I was kind of the outsider coming in, and I felt like I had to prove myself.
I ended up being freshmen of the year, and I did it sophomore year, too. It wasn’t that I had to be one of those students at the top of the classes. It was just I wanted to prove myself and I worked really hard. When I expressed interest in joining The Republic of Tea, it was my decision, and I didn’t want a role created for me. I went through the interviewing process and I had to prove myself at The Republic of Tea. It wasn’t just nepotism or something like that. I knew I had to make my mark here, too.
Reflecting back, I think realizing I needed to make an impact is connected to leadership.
Growing up in a family business also had a big influence.
My grandfather had a wine and liquor distributorship, and my dad went to work for him. So we have a history of family business ventures before my father purchased The Republic of Tea in 1994. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she also had her own small stationary business.
I never felt pressure from my parents to go to business school or to follow in my father’s footsteps and to come to work for the family. I’m grateful my parents let me explore my own passions. In high school, I had developed a passion for arts and design, and I loved photography. I met with the high school college counselor and said I wanted to be a photographer.
She was like: Well, you’re not going to make that much money. What about architecture?
I was strong in math, so I started exploring it and decided it felt right to me. I looked at architecture schools, and that’s how I ended up at Syracuse.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured Jacob Corlyon, co-founder of Capital Collection Management.