(Lake Missoula) Tea Time’s the Charm

Open Road — Week 3 by Team ACAI

In our third week on the road, starting with our drive on I-90W from North Dakota to Montana, Team ACAI immediately knew that we were in for a treat. A pit-stop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park left us in awe and feeling truly grateful for the opportunity to visit, learn, and connect with such amazing communities across the US.

Crossing over the highways through Fargo, Billings, and Bozeman, the views seemed to become increasingly picturesque. We joked that if we had a penny for every time we gasped at the sight of nature; we’d have enough money to cover the cost of gasoline for our trip. As we continued to drive, the anticipation for our week-three destination built; and let me tell you…we were not disappointed.

Clark Fork River

For those less familiar, Missoula, Montana is truly one of the gems of the West. Located approximately 45 miles from the Montana-Idaho border, Missoula is situated at the convergence of five mountain ranges. It also happens to boast one of the highest per capita counts of non-profit organizations in the US. It’s unique composition of non-profit and for-profit businesses helps it to create a progressive and socially-responsible community of citizens that are actively engaged and invested in one another’s success.

According to Heather and Jake Kreillick, co-founders of Lake Missoula Tea Company, businesses in Missoula can succeed or fail solely on the extent of their ties to the local community. Which is why, since its founding, part of the mission of Lake Missoula Tea Company has been to give back. In addition to the founders’ dedication to doing what’s right, Heather and Jake have successfully owned and operated one of the only tea bars in Montana for five years and counting. A husband and wife partnership, their life experiences and non-traditional, business savvy yielded incredible insights for our team.

Left to Right (back): Jake Kreillick, Heather Kreillick, Ian Stackhouse-Kaelble (front): Courtney Poopat, Apoorva Kanneganti, Alexis Morath

Heather and Jake founded Lake Missoula Tea Company after tasting tea from Mad Hat Tea Company in Tacoma, WA. At the time, both were contemplating career reinventions and recognized that there might be an opportunity to set-up a similar tea operation in Missoula. The founder of Mad Hat Tea Company, an old rugby buddy of Jake’s, graciously offered to share the Mad Hat business model with the couple and introduced them to the world of tea. Since then, Heather and Jake have immersed themselves in learning the intricacies of the tea business and have cultivated deep knowledge of the global tea landscape.

At the onset of launching the business, the couple made the decision to personally visit and source teas from sustainable farms. This decision has allowed Lake Missoula Tea Company to offer the world’s best teas and to work with global partners who re-circulate profits back into their local economies. From hearing Heather and Jake’s stories about the tea farmers in Yunnan, China to those planting purple tea in Kenya, Africa it’s clear that one of the keys to the Kreillick’s success is that they continuously prioritize human relationships above all.

But, what happens when you begin to outgrow some of the processes and methods that have carried you so far? How do you stay rooted when it’s time to expand? These were exactly the questions Heather and Jake asked us to consider during our week in Missoula.

With half a decade of experience running Lake Missoula Tea Company, Jake and Heather taught us an extensive amount about running a small business. Based on their needs, we focused our efforts on determining a way to help the couple identify, plan for, and overcome some of the innate challenges of scaling a business. After deliberation, we recognized that we could create the most value by focusing on increasing profitability, so that Lake Missoula Tea Company would have more flexibility to invest in growth initiatives. To raise revenues, we worked with them to improve their customer relationship management processes and increase their adoption of their CRM technology solution. To manage costs, we helped them improve their current accounting system and designed a cost accounting tool to show the individual profitability of each tea.

As MBA students, it may sound all too stereotypical to say that the focus of our week was on producing profits and that is the last thing we hope that anyone takes away from our work in Missoula. Yes, profits are important, but overwhelmingly our experience at Lake Missoula Tea Company reinforced the importance of real human connection and its role in conducting business.

From meeting with members of the Missoula community like the founders of Imagine Nation Brewery and learning how they are using their taproom to generate social change to watching Jake and Heather empower their employees and utilize sustainable sourcing practices, it is ever more clear to us that human connection, community impact, and financial profits are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Rather, these results can be pursued simultaneously to produce both positive economic and social outcomes.