Lipton is the highest-selling tea in the world, with distribution in 110 countries.
Thomas Lipton introduces a new packaged tea blend
Thomas Lipton (1846 – 1931) was born in Glasgow to a working class family. He established a chain of grocery stores.
Lipton believed that if he could lower the price of tea he could increase sales among the working classes. He acquired thousands of acres of cut-price tea plantations in the south of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1890. By sourcing his own tea Lipton was able to cut out the middleman, and pass on the savings to the customer.
Lipton claimed to have the largest sale of any tea in the world “beyond doubt” by 1897, and millions of people drank his tea every day. Over one million packets of Lipton tea were sold in Britain every week.
Thomas Lipton paid a record-breaking £35,000 duty on a week’s purchase of tea in 1897. This was over half the average for the total weekly tea market, which Lipton now claimed to dominate. By this time his tea enjoyed a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901). Several thousand workers were employed on his Ceylon plantations.
Lipton tea was blended differently for various regions of Britain in order to best suit the local water.
Lipton tea received Royal Warrants from Edward VII (1841 – 1910) and George V (1865 – 1936).
Lipton claimed to be the largest tea distributors, manufacturers and retailers of food products in the world by 1924.
The company had entered into difficulty by 1926. The business had outgrown the overworked Thomas Lipton, but he refused to take advice from his board of directors. He was forced to resign from the company he had built in 1927, and his stake was acquired for £60,000.
Thomas Lipton died in 1931. He left a British estate valued at over £1.4 million, and an American estate valued at £757,000.
Lipton is acquired by Home & Colonial
Lipton was acquired by Home & Colonial, a large grocery chain, in 1931.
Lipton divested some of its plantations in Ceylon in 1944, but retained 3,400 acres of high quality tea estates.
The large supermarket chains grew in influence from the 1950s, and they were reluctant to stock tea from a rival grocery business. Lipton tea sales in Britain declined and never recovered, and the company instead concentrated on the overseas tea market.
Lipton had total coverage of the Indian market by 1968. The company built a new fully-automated factory of over 175,000 sq ft. It was one of the largest tea packing and blending factories in the world.
Lipton tea was sold in 156 countries by 1969, and packed in 29 factories. Lipton was the second largest tea business in the world.
Unilever acquires Lipton
The Lipton tea interests were acquired by Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, for £18.5 million in 1972. By this time Lipton was a relatively small player in the British tea market, and was outsold by two Brooke Bond brands (PG Tips and Dividend), as well as Tetley, J Lyons, Typhoo and the Co-operative Wholesale Society.
Lipton enjoyed great success in the United States, with 50 percent of the market by 1975.
All Lipton tea was packed and blended at a factory in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, by 1979. It was the largest tagged tea bag factory in Europe. Lipton was awarded the Queen’s Award For Export that year.
Lipton Yellow Label was the highest selling tea in the world, a blend of Ceylon, India and other tea leaves. Lipton exported more tea to more countries (over 120) than any other company by 1980.
The Leighton Buzzard factory was closed in 1999, and production was relocated to a site in Dubai. The Dubai site is now the largest tea factory in the world.
Unilever sold its tea interests, excluding its businesses in India, Nepal and Indonesia, and the ready to drink Lipton business, to CVC Capital for £3.8 billion in 2021.