Eight storeys above the hustle and bustle of Biscayne Bay, with a breath-taking view of the iconic downtown Miami skyline, it’s not hard for Kiran Akal to feel like he’s sitting on top of the world. A reaction that is symbolic of the rise to fame that the SMAKS Luxury Group has recently undergone. In less than 24 months, Kiran took the classic family-owned business based in Trinidad and Tobago, and transformed it into a globally celebrated tea and spirits brand.
SMAKS began as a luxury gift shop manned by the matriarch of the Akal family in 1979, but moved into the tea business in 2011.
“On my return to Trinidad, I learned that my mother wanted to sell the boutique that she had run for some 35 years. I felt a deep sense of loss, becaus e here I was working with all these companies and developing their brands, so there must be something I can do for my family’s business,” Kiran recounted.
As a child, Kiran accompanied his mother on most of her buying trips. As an adult, he spent his formative years studying and living in Europe. Overtime, Kiran became increasingly exposed to fine products and gained a greater appreciation for luxury branding and marketing.
“Besides becoming a china and crystal fanatic, I got an understanding of what quality means and how grand firms in Europe made fine products for market. There was no reason why this knowledge couldn’t be applied to my family’s business.”
The idea for SMAKS Bespoke Teas started as joke suggested by Kiran’s sister, given his undeniable love for the beverage. Kiran, however, thought it was a brilliant idea.
“The West Indies is predominantly African, Indian, and Chinese. These are three regions in the world that grow a lot of tea, and this tea came with them to the West Indies. I immediately saw the connection with these teas, and the things that people came to the West Indies for; things that grew naturally like citrus, chocolate, cocoa, molasses, rum, and exotic spices.”
Kiran saw an opportunity to take the tea leaves from one part of the world, one aspect of West Indian history, and combine them with the very essence of Caribbean life. With that, he set about telling the tale of two Indies, East and West, and bringing them together to create a new chapter in Caribbean history.
Today, SMAKS is the Caribbean’s premier luxury tea brand with eleven teas in the company’s product range: Antillean Green, Barbados Silver, Bermuda Pink, Caribbean Chai, Grenadines Purple, Hispaniola, Parang, Tobago Afternoon, Trinidad Breakfast, Trinitario Dark, and Trinitario Light. SMAKS teas have won several international awards, and were also presented to Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee. However, as Kiran began to work with tea, he realised the potential for the company to innovate using the aromatic beverage.
“Our entire focus was to create the first true luxury tea brand from the West Indies that would be globally recognised. It may seem ambitious, but with the growth and rate of the global tea market, I felt it was something we could do.”
Kiran had the desire to create a tea company with a unique model, that would appeal to people all over the world simply because the company was the only one doing it. This model was one of luxury, quality and innovation, and with this ambition SMAKS Chai Rum, the world’s first tea-infused rum, came about.
“Rum, like tea, is synonymous with the West Indies and unique to the entire world. So we decided to do what no one else is doing, be the first company in the world to create Chai Rum.”
With the creation of the Chai Rum came several opportunities for the SMAKS Luxury Group, two of which set the foundation for a whirlwind global encounter. First, the company participated in ANUGA, the world’s leading food fair for the retail trade and the food service and catering market, staged in Cologne, Germany.
“I found out about ANUGA while showcasing at the Trade and Investment Convention in Trinidad. I jumped at the opportunity because I recognized this as one of the most important food and beverage trade fairs in Europe. I knew that it was going to be a huge event and an occasion to reach hundreds, maybe thousands with our product.”
Participation in ANUGA has opened new export markets for SMAKS. In addition to the Caribbean market, the company is now distributing to Europe, specifically Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The company is also in discussions with buyers in Germany and Italy.
The other major achievement for SMAKS Chai Rum was catching the attention of and securing a deal with Camper and Nicholsons International, the world’s largest yacht brokerage. As a global brand partner, Chai Rum will be poured at some of the company’s most prestigious events, including the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix slated for May 22-25, 2014.
Chai Rum has also won silver in a Wine & Spirits tasting competition at the world renowned Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, an accomplishment that will no doubt open the US market for the luxury brand.
“It has been amazing experience, and all it started with ANUGA. Of all the experiences I’ve had with Caribbean Export over the last three years, this was by far the best.”
SMAKS first became a beneficiary of Caribbean Export in 2011, shortly after he had introduced Bespoke Teas to his company’s brand.
“Even before ANUGA, Caribbean Export had played an incredibly important role in our success. They gave us the very first break by facilitating our participation in Design Caribbean in Santo Domingo, and the response from the public was phenomenal. After that, there were other trade missions, opportunities to receive funding, and attend talk shops and meetings. With each activity, we tried to maximise the opportunity that was given to us.”
Following Design Caribbean, Kiran entered and won Caribbean Export’s pilot launch of its business competition, Break Point, in Grenada in 2012. He was also given the opportunity to pitch his product to investors in the finals of the competition in London. SMAKS also received a Direct Assistance Grant that year, to assist with the re-branding of the business and facilitate e-commerce.
“What Caribbean Export offers regional firms and entrepreneurs is a hand up, not a hand out. It’s up to us to make the most of these opportunities. We built this company on passion and fumes, but initiatives like Design Caribbean, Break Point and ANUGA gave us the momentum we required, to reach the markets that we desired.”
As Kiran continues to capture the taste and flavour of the Caribbean with his unique blends and assortment of teas, the shrewd businessman is constantly thinking of new ways to revolutionise the story of SMAKS.
“In addition to expanding the growth of Chai Rum across the rest of Europe, we want to re-launch the website for the Tea and focus a bit more on that side of the business. We are also looking at the structure of the company and increasing financing.”
Building a globally recognised brand takes time and comes with its own lessons. Kiran notes that that vision, quality and confidence are at the top of his list.
“Like most Caribbean businesses, SMAKS’ model was import and retail, not manufacture and export, but I saw a huge and largely unexploited opportunity, and other entrepreneurs can do the same if they embrace the vast natural resources that the region has to offer, pay attention to quality and detail, and be confident in their brand.”
Kiran also believes that regional firms are in a position to maximise their exports with co-operation and innovation. He admonished bigger firms to understand that innovation is important and that working with small entrepreneurs is the way to go.
“These entrepreneurs don’t have the bureaucracy that comes with bigger organizations, but they have to the speed to move and ideas to innovate. However, as small entrepreneurs, we have to be sure that we have a good idea or product; the best way to test this is to face the public. Bring it to market and gauge the reaction you receive.”