Clayton Christopher spent his early days as a competitive cyclist. It was fun while it lasted, but Clayton says he got tired of staring at the back of Lance Armstrong’s jersey. He tried his hand as a charter boat captain in the Florida Keys. “We lived large and broke even.” But one day he realized that the guys who could afford sailboats weren’t the guys who made their living chartering them. As the sun went down in the harbor, he decided it was time to make his mark on the world.
“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My father started his own business. I’ve always believed anything was possible.” Since childhood, Clayton seemed to know he would run his own company. But that day on the sailboat, he didn’t have one clue as to what that business might be.
Then, he was introduced to a businessman from Birmingham, Alabama, who brewed and bottled iced tea. The man spoke with such passion, it was contagious. Not only did he give Christopher the encouragement he needed to take the plunge, but the Alabama iced tea bottler gave him the inspiration for the category he would ultimately pursue: bottled iced tea.
It wouldn’t be about breaking new ground, it would be about digging deeper. Clayton decided he would make the best-tasting iced tea in the world.
Christopher loves the idea of “in some small way, leaving the world a better place than how he found it.” So he took his last $10,000 with a matching grant from his dad and went to brewing tea.
His infrastructure was modest: two garden hoses from Home Depot and a pillow case for a teabag. He begged for shelf space from a local convenience store. He navigated the lean years, when money was so scarce, he had to chose between meeting payroll and paying vendors. But it all paid off. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Christopher and Sweet Leaf Iced Tea have been featured on CNBC and the Food Network. His sweetened teas are marketed in major chains throughout the world. But the thing that really lights him up is getting an e-mail from a satisfied customer who has taken the time to rave about one of his new flavors of tea.
The other thing that excites him is giving something back. Clayton sees his success as a means to an end. The end, in this case, is supporting the charities he has always had a soft spot for. Clayton says he learned this from one of his personal heroes: Ben & Jerry’s co-founder, Jerry Greenfield.
Not that long ago, Greenfield made a visit to Sweet Leaf in Austin. The two men sat down and strategized ways that Christopher and his company could improve more than the taste of tea.
Greenfield told him if Ben & Jerry’s has a budget of $10 million for advertising, they will put $9 million of it into philanthropic tie-ins. A light went off in Christopher’s head and he rang up his favorite charity, Big Brothers Big Sisters and discussed how Sweet Leaf could be a bigger part of the cause. After they worked out something, Clayton picked up the phone again. This time it was the Susan G. Komen Foundation that he called.
Supporting his two favorite charities, Clayton sees as a “win-win.”
“The more tea we sell, the more help we can give to the communities we are in. It’s great. Our employees love being part of something bigger than just selling products.”
As you talk to Christopher you see more than a successful bottled tea maven; you see someone who cares about his legacy, and you still see a little bit of that time as a cyclist. “To really compete, you have to be extremely driven.” And something else, he smiles; “Too stubborn to say ‘no’.”