It’s no accident that Sharyn Johnston chose a pun by which to name her first tea bar in the Geelong CBD.

‘TeaCha’ is the latest venture in a career that has seen her re-invent herself to become a global force in teaching people about the world’s second most consumed drink under the business umbrella that is Australian Tea Masters.

Drawing on years overseas as a specialist in corporate restructuring, she became fascinated with the varieties of tea and how it was consumed.

Returning to Geelong, Sharyn set her heart on opening a quiet neighbourhood café. With a focus on hand-blended and specialty teas, the café would also offer good coffee. 

But perhaps in deference to Australia’s obsession with coffee the journey to becoming a global tea expert started with a diversion when the person selected to manage that café couldn’t take up the role. So Sharyn and son Nathan grasped the nettle; son roasting coffee on site while Mother managed front of house. Sharyn’s café ended up becoming Nathan’s café and together they laid the foundations for what would become the well-known Coffee Cartel.

But Sharyn acknowledges “there is no way that Cartel would be where it is today without Nathan’s passion for learning everything from roasting to branding and overall knowledge about coffee. Working alongside him and understanding more about specialty coffee made me realise that there were as many, if not more complexities in tea.”

She had also noted that while tea is grown in many countries there was little by way of cross-cultural awareness of tea between those countries. But it was her difficulty in finding a tea education course so she could become tea-literate that pointed to a massive but untapped business opportunity.

Aiding her education she drew on her international contacts to learn about tea, from growing it to drinking it. She visited real tea factories which she says were not the sanitised versions featured on TV travelogues. While noting that the tea industry is 99 percent men, she counsels the need to think about the business on a non-sexist basis.

These initiatives helped lay the foundations for Australian Tea Masters which today offers a range of services including tea education and training, private label blending, tea-related events and tea business advice. The wholesale business provides some eight tonnes of tea a year for 120 private label blends in Australia and last year alone the business made one million tea bags. With an office in Singapore and plans for further international expansion, TeaCha is her first venture into tea at a retail level.

Keen to ensure a legacy, she was recently advised that after a long and detailed process, the Government had accredited the first tea school in Australia.

“The Australian Institute of Tea will be responsible for managing our education agenda,” she said.

Sharyn’s most important advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in any field is “to save and start slowly to avoid stress. You must have cash behind you to sustain you when things get quiet,” she counsels, citing times with which she was familiar early in the life of her business.

As a restructuring expert she learned the importance of needing to know all the job roles in an organisation.

“Understand that no one is irreplaceable, even myself,” she said.

This lesson came home to her when she was charged with restructuring a company in Germany. Speaking little or no German she started on the ground floor of the company rather than the top floor which housed the executive ranks.

“You need to push through cultural and other boundaries and recognise that respect for people is very important. A packer is as important as the managing director.”

Passion and perseverance and the need to stay focussed are the essential requirements for building a business,” she says.