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The Big Interview: Mark Dunhill, MD, Whittard of Chelsea


With only 51 stores in the UK, and little to no advertising, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about Whittard of Chelsea. But the tea specialist has been around since the 19th century. The first Whittard of Chelsea store was opened by London merchant Walter Whittard in 1886, where he sold teas from around the world to eager London customers. That store has since turned into a nationwide franchise and a household name. If your friend’s cupboard has a blend of tea you’ve never heard of before and aren’t sure you’re ever likely to try, it’s likely that it came from Whittard. 

Mark Dunhill, Whittard’s MD since January 2014, is a lover of teas. His favourite one week is replaced by another the following week”, and with a background that complements his connoisseur status, he can really appreciate the correlation between the expansion of Whittard of Chelsea and the growth of tea as a staple of the British public. 

“In the early 19th century tea was still very much a luxury product due to high taxes,” he tells Retail Gazette. “It was only during the course of the century that it became popular for the masses. WC started in 1886, when it was gaining more broad appeal.” 

His own interest in the company’s products isn't all that made him a fit for his current role. Dunhill has a strong history of managing and building international brands such as TM Lewin, where he oversaw the opening of 50 international stores and entry into 11 new markets. This made him well suited to Whittard’s plans for future growth. As an outsider, Dunhill agrees that “there was a significant untapped opportunity” to transform the company from a high street chain into “an aspirational global brand.” 

Dunhill already expects that anyone over the age of 30 or 40 “can find something from Whittard in their cupboard”, but is the company well positioned enough as a brand to embrace the global market place in this way? 

The company began “the expansion of business into key markets” last year, still managing to turn a profit despite this, and despite some major management restructuring. It seemed, then, that Whittard had a good starting point for its expansion. 

Dunhill has now been at the helm for almost two years, and has confidence in the company’s chances. His goal as MD is “for Whittard to be the destination for the finest teas, coffees and cocoas for every market we enter in the world.” 

For this to occur there are a number of significant challenges, but Whittard appears to have a lot in its favour. 

Having started off as a brand that offered imported teas from around the globeWhittard’s wide range has always been a part of its heritage, which it markets across its stores. Tea is a well-integrated aspect of the British identity, and as such this heritage is something Whittard can, and has been, making use of to appear every bit the archetypal British tea merchant. Its extravagantly diverse range, as well as its emphasis on proper preparation, emits the impression of a well trained eye with the wide knowledge that comes from over a century of businessDunhill agreed that heritage “is an asset that’s hard to reproduce from scratch.” 

“It’s some sort of guarantee to the customer that we know what we’re up to. It’s also great evidence of expertise and credibility.” 

Now more than ever, as it looks to expand into foreign markets, this historical asset of the Whittard of Chelsea brand is a boon for the company. Tourist revenue and events like Singles Day have shown that foreign customers have a great fondness for British goods, particularly in China. 

“Particularly among the younger generation there is a real resurgence in afternoon tea, which has become a very popular lifestyle activity among the 20-25 year old customer. They have a great fascination for English heritage and afternoon tea.” 

Although this heritage has inherent strengths, Whittard’s branding and advertisements appear to be heavily geared towards experienced tea drinkers. Although this is no doubt attractive for those who can tell their English Rose from their Tippy Assam, it could be perceived as exclusive to those who are used to basic tea bags and traditional flavours. 

“I don’t think we’re alienating people. We still offer the old favourites: the English breakfasts, the jasmines. They remain strong sellers. What we’ve done is ensure that the quality is beyond reproach. 

We have two types of customers: the person who knows exactly what they want and restocks week in week out, and the ‘adventure customer’ who comes to Whittard so we can educate them in the world of fine teas, and help them discover the joy that these teas offer. 

We want to convey through communication that we run that we offer a wide range of teas for the aspiring connoisseur.” 

A communicative approach ought to be welcome for those that are eager to experience fine teas. Dunhill admits that “experts” often combine their knowledge “with a bit of aloofness, which can create intimidating environments”, and that this is something he is determined to avoid by making each WC employee a “friendly fanatic”. 

At the same time, the customers Dunhill mentions are clearly present at chains such as Starbucks. These fast-drink franchises also offer a wide range, including popular seasonal treats and mysterious ‘secret menus’. 

“I see us as an antidote to the way coffee chains do tea. They dump the teabag into a mug of water without paying attention to how tea should be served. 

The way we present tea for when customers want to drink on the premises, we brew it in a teapot for the right amount of time at the right temperature and let the customer enjoy the ritual that surrounds the experience of fine tea.” 

For customers who are more inclined to the ritual of tea brewing, Whittard now has a number of stores which offer ‘tea to go’. Several branches in London as well as the new store in Birmingham Grand Central offer this service, which is planned to be made available “wherever the store is big enough”. Although this is an attractive proposition for the fine tea fanatic, it remains to be seen if such stores can compete with the fast on-the-go coffee chains that are sure to have branches nearby. 

Changing technology, too, is an ongoing challenge that Whittard must be prepared to meet. Dunhill agrees that the high street is clearly under a great deal of pressure, but believes Whittard is well adapted to survive and thrive as we offer experiences that cannot be had elsewhere. 

I think there are two strands. One, we have a retail estate of 51 stores, and this is what we see as a massive asset to the business to introduce customers to what we do and help them discover teas and coffees. 

Two, our online presence, which we have great expectations for. There are customers who may well want to reorder their favourites from our website or use it as an opportunity to order gifts for loved ones. We see a massive opportunity to grow that web business over the next five years.” 

The potential is certainly there. Retailers have seen mobile and online shoppers making a much higher contribution to revenues in recent years. Whittard among the many retailers that have invested in dedicated mobile sites to allow customers to purchase on the go with as much convenience as possible. 

After almost two years at the head of the company, Dunhill believes he and the team he inherited have “achieved an awful lot” in repositioning the brand for global growth.  

“I’m certainly proud of the progress I’ve made with my management team to reposition the brand for global growth. We take pride in the store concept that we’ve developed.” 

Overseas and at home, the brand certainly has the image of a well explored purveyor of fine teas, though there seems to be little compelling evidence to prove Marks assertion that its products can be found in quite so many UK cupboards. With the season of gift giving on the way, and plans to continue establishing itself in key international markets, there remains a good deal of potential for Whittard of Chelsea to achieve its designs. 

Published on Friday 20 November by Philip Gallagher

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