Meadow Ridge resident Joseph Wertheim is the founder of Sorwathe Ltd. of Rwanda and chairman of Tea Importers Inc., a firm in Westport that imports and sells tea to major packers, blenders and specialty tea companies in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
In November, Sorwathe Ltd. was the winner of the Secretary of State’s 2012 Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE). The ACE is an annual award recognizing U.S.-owned businesses that exhibit exemplary corporate citizenship, promote innovation, and advance democratic principles around the world.
Andrew Wertheim, the son of Joseph and Marion Wertheim, joined the company in 2001 and is now its president. He is a lawyer by training and worked 17 years on Wall Street in both public and private practice, he said.
“I had to learn about tea, as well as the business of tea and the process, which is a lifetime of learning. I spend time both in and out of the factory as well as here in the office. I get to know the customers, know the suppliers — it’s hands-on learning,” he said.
Joseph Wertheim started the company in 1953 and still comes to the office every day, said Andrew Wertheim, but he has stepped back from day-to-day business.
“I’m really running the company now,” he said.
After founding Tea Importers, Joseph Wertheim was traveling in Kenya in the 1960s and heard that Rwanda was starting to produce tea, his son said.
“He arranged a trip to Rwanda for one of his next visits and established a contact with the [Rwandan] government agency that was in charge of tea production. Tea was a state-owned enterprise at the time,” said Andrew Wertheim.
Thereafter, Tea Importers started selling Rwandan tea.
In the early 1970s, the government asked Joseph Wertheim if he would be willing to process the tea in Rwanda because they had run out of funds to do it themselves, his son said.
He explained that at that time the Rwanda tea plantation was a joint project with European aid and United States aid,” and the Rwandan government was able to get tea bushes planted, but ran out of money to build the factory.
“In 1972, the government asked my father if he’d be willing to invest in the country in the tea factory. He agreed, and they proceeded to negotiate an investment agreement over the next three years,” said Mr. Wertheim.
In 1975, Tea Importers Inc. and other U.S. investors formed a joint venture with the Rwandan government, with the U.S. investors owning 51% and the Rwandan government owning 49% of the Sorwathe tea factory.
“It then took three years to build the factory. It was finished in 1978 and had its first sale in February 1979,” said Andrew Wertheim. “It’s been going strong ever since.”
Tea Importers also trades teas primarily from Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, and Sri Lankan producers.
“Our customers are what we call major packers and blenders. For instance, we sell tea to Lipton, Celestial, Bigelow, Tazo, Twinings, all the brands you see in the store. They take our tea and blend it,” he said.
“We also sell to Middle Eastern tea companies. Pakistan is the largest single export market for Rwanda tea. They buy 80% of Rwanda’s output,” said Andrew Wertheim.
The Sorwathe tea factory in Rwanda started with one processing line; now it has four, he said.
“There has been an expansion over time, and in 2007, we invested in a second factory in Rwanda that makes leaf teas. We’ve also expanded the type of teas we make to include green and white teas,” said Mr. Wertheim. “Sorwathe now produces about 3 million kilograms of black, green, and white tea per year.”
“We are proud of Sorwathe’s achievements, and grateful for the recognition and honor this [ACE] award confers. It is very meaningful to all of us,” said Joseph Wertheim and his wife, Marion.
“They’ve lived in the area since the late 1940s,” said Mr. Wertheim. “I live in Scarsdale, N.Y., and grew up in Weston.”