Traditional Medicinals: Four decades…..who could have dreamed?

Over the decades I’ve observed that companies which have withstood the tests of time, become entities unto themselves with lifecycles that mirror our own. These cycles of corporate life can be viewed through periods of time, phases of leadership, shifts in purpose and the imagery and messaging associated with a company’s branding. This is especially true with Traditional Medicinals, which turns forty this month.
November 20th, 1974 was an important day in time and the company founders were careful to plan the first sale of tea on that date, choosing that day as the first breath of the organization. In addition to a long history with herbalism, the founders were steeped in metaphysics and astrology. The conception of Traditional Medicinals was a least a year in the planning; procuring all the herbal ingredients needed, blending all the formulas and designing the packaging…. all of this in preparation for that auspicious day, when, for the first time in eighty four years, the outer planet Uranus entered the sign of Scorpio.
In astrological terms, the planet Uranus is associated with the power of transformation and the desire to go beyond old forms from the past.
In Scorpio, Uranus focuses its transformative power in the areas of business, finance and regenerative healing. It was with this intention and a new beginning for the blending of business and healing, that Traditional Medicinals was founded.
The company was blessed with the very best genetics. Its birth was a labor of love, with years of pre-natal herbal research and preparation by co-founder Rosemary Gladstar.
Revered today as the (youngest ever) godmother of modern herbalism, Rosemary had developed the company’s formulas in the early seventies and they already had a strong following and reputation before they were packaged for sale. Rosemary was an attentive birth mother and continued to guide the company and formulate new herbal products for the decade that followed and many of her original formulas remain the company’s most popular today.
Similar to young children, a young company thrives best when surrounded and nurtured by an extended family. Aunts and uncles (a few are still part of the TM family today) were attracted to the growing company, and its founding call to “business as unusual”. Can you find Janine & Josef in the eighties photo below?

None of these “aunts and uncles” knew that much about organization or finance, but we shared the mantra of right livelihood, and working together the infant enterprise both survived and prospered (in spite of my moustache).
The teen years however were a very different phase. Childlike misbehavior was no longer tolerated and in the eighties the Food and Drug Administration challenged the company’s very existence, accusing Traditional Medicinals of making medicines without a license.
To the rescue came a very bright young woman who would not only lead the company into its next phase, but she led the herb industry (APHA, the American Herbal Products Association) there as well.
Lynda Elizabeth LeMole brought organization and legitimacy to Traditional Medicinals, positioning it for the next phase of its growth.
The natural products industry was expanding rapidly, and with the company’s teas placed in Safeway nationwide, the brand was definitely headed up the on ramp to mainstream and Lynda was the perfect “mom” to adopt and guide Traditional Medicinals as its president.

With its’ regulatory problems resolved, an in-house quality assurance lab established, and a new legal look promoting the first over-the-counter brand of herbal medicines, the company introduced a line of hemp paper tea bags. The branding then was more focused on what was not in the products (pesticides, herbicides and “natural” flavors) offering instead organically grown herbs….well before anyone knew what organic meant. The company grew dramatically assisted by sales guy extraordinaire Steve Terre.
In spite of the best parenting, most teens feel the need to eventually break away from their families and expand their horizons, often traveling great distances from the family home. Heading north to Canada, Traditional Medicinals was quick to establish a second home in this bi-lingual market, and our business there today continues to be very strong.
Further casting aside the boundaries of familiar territory, and seeking also to establish a separate identity (aka “Traditional Herbals”), our venturous teen crossed the big pond with hopes to capture a share of the lucrative English tea drinking market.
For many years that followed Traditional Medicinals maintained a small presence in the United Kingdom until Her Majesty’s regulatory authorities chased us out of the British Isles….their loss.
As most parents will attest, teenagers eat constantly and then grow while they sleep. In a similar way, high growth companies require a lot of resources to build and expand. The natural products industry continued to grow significantly during these years, and outside investors fueled companies with the capital they needed, often leading to a change of control and a change in their founding values. Rather than putting the company at risk, a slower and self-protective growth strategy was developed raising capital through licensing and master distribution arrangements with non-owned products. In this way Traditional Medicinals was able to leverage its reputation, stellar sales force, broad distribution and large brokerage networks to bring new innovative products to market without having to invest (or risk) our limited resources in new product development. In the years that followed, this strategy proved to be very successful.
In 1990, on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, Traditional Medicinals partnered with the Fort Howard paper company to launch the first-to-market Green Forest and Envision lines of recycled paper products (facial tissue, toilet paper, paper towels and napkins).These brands were very successful across all classes of trade, and remain category leaders today. With profits from this and similar projects, the company had the capital it needed to grow while remaining independent. Traditional Medicinals was always a shy teenager, not showy, more introverted and focused on self-improvement and not cocky displays of over marketed self-grandeur. Keeping any teen on track however requires serious parenting and fortunately another wave of family members arrived on the scene bringing with them additional skill sets, experience and appreciation for an organization that under promised and over delivered, blending high quality herbs with an environmentally friendly philosophy. The packaging certainly looked friendly!

The years from 25-40 can best be described as a phase of self-actualization, a time when the question shifts from “Who am I and where am I going?” to “What’s my role in the world and (hopefully) how can I serve”? This question of purpose re-invigorated the company’s founding mission to transform business as a vehicle for social change. Another wave of family and friends took on the roles of Management, Board Directors and Advisors, supporting the transition to a socially responsible business model passionate about plants, people and profits.
One of those new family members is Nioma Narissa, the next “mother” (Theresa like) at Traditional Medicinals whose support of our mostly impoverished supplier communities provides hope and promise for the long term preservation of the company’s mission and the empowerment of thousands of indigenous people around the world.
Combining forces with her organization WomenServe, the Traditional Medicinals Foundation, and dedicated members of the company’s Supply Chain Group, Traditional Medicinals’ commitment to community development is helping to shape the meaning of true sustainability.
Many individuals and organizations that make it to forty become comfortable and complacent. They spend the majority of their time reminiscing about the “good old days” and looking in the rear view mirror instead of looking forward.
Wisely, company CEO Blair Kellison, invested in the organization’s self-analysis. Recognizing that Traditional Medicinals was on the threshold of another phase of expansion and maturation, he hired a new round of fresh, younger eyes focused on the future…..bringing skills, tools and branding expertise never imagined possible.
As a result the company is accelerating rapidly, moving from “good to great”. Its mission is alive as never before, allowing this remaining co-founder to witness the organization fulfilling its destiny as envisioned forty years ago. Thank you Blair for the sacred servant leadership role you have assumed as company steward!
The messaging on the brand’s packaging now reflects this change with a focus on the ethical and equitable treatment of our supplier communities. Traditional Medicinals is very proud to be the largest Fair Trade and Fair Wild tea brand in all of North America.
When I first “caught” this baby at its birth I never dreamed anything like this was possible. Later when I strapped the young company into my Volkswagen van to sell those first bags of tea I also never dreamed we would produce and sell a half billion tea bags a year. And over the decades when I at times struggled to bring home the money to feed this always hungry youngster, or come up with the “allowance” it demanded, I never could have dreamed that one day Traditional Medicinals would “feed” and support so many people and do so much good!
When children reach their forties most of their fathers are retiring, yet I never imagined work could have such meaning and be so rewarding. I know now there simply is no retirement from a life of service and for that I am deeply grateful.
With so much gratitude I remain fully inspired.
Drake Sadler
Co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer
PS: Forgive me everyone………I couldn’t possibly acknowledge one more person without mentioning the hundreds of people who have contributed to the success of Traditional Medicinals. Thank you all!