New Brunswick

G.E. Barbour at 150: Not just tea anymore

The Barbour name has stayed the same, but the G.E. Barbour company has changed dramatically in its 150 years in the province.

Famed N.B. company's roots go back to 1867

Peanut butter for a U.S. private label makes its way through the production line at Barbour's in Sussex, N.B. (Deborah Irvine Anderson/CBC)

Canada 150 is turning into a big party, but in New Brunswick, it's not the only celebration of that milestone.

Three of the province's most successful companies also have roots that go back to 1867.

Moosehead Breweries, Source Atlantic and G-E Barbours have been in operation, in one form or another, as long as this country has existed.

They marked the occasion with a gala dinner and huge fireworks display in Saint John the past week.

G.E. Barbour Inc. is a food company known for spices, peanut butter and of course, tea, and the famous brand King Cole.

Sylvia MacVey, the president and chief executive officer of G.E. Barbour's, said the company's success is due to its ability to change with the industry. (LinkedIn)
"G.E. Barbour was founded by two brothers, William and George," president and CEO Sylvia MacVey said, appearing on Information Morning Saint John. "They were an importer and wholesaler for the city."

The company was located in the south end of the city, but the original operation was destroyed in the Saint John fire of 1877.

Tea takes over

At that point it was rebuilt on Market Slip. It was a successful business, but the product that changed the company's future was introduced in 1910, when it purchased a small local brand of tea called King Cole.

At that point, the company was run by George's son, the G.E. of fame.

"When you look at the number of companies purchased by G. E. Barbour between 1910 - 1925, it just continued to grow," said MacVey.

By the late 1940s, with no natural heir in the family, a new owner was sought out.

It's not the lifeblood of the business anymore, but it's still the most famous product in the G.E. Barbour line. (
MacVey's grandfather, Ralph Brenan, eventually took over in the early 1950's.

"He was a tea man, he was a manufacturer, he worked for the Red Rose company, so that's where he made all his contacts," she said. "He was a real visionary. He was one of the first people in the region to really understand and appreciate modern manufacturing practices. He was a great promoter of using computers when they first became available, he was a great numbers guy."

Move to Sussex

With the modernization of Market Slip, the company was forced to move, and took advantage of an offer from the Town of Sussex to relocate there.

The key to the long success of the company, said MacVey, was its ability to change its business as the food industry developed.

"It had significant changes in its entire model every 25 - 35 years," she said. "If you look at the history, we were an importer and a warehouser and then we became a manufacturer, and then we bought up distribution companies all around the province and into eastern Quebec and Nova Scotia. Constant evolution. And now we are primarily...a food processor."

The key is to look to the future, she said.

Bags of peanuts weighing 770 kilograms are shipped in from Georgia to Barbour's nut butter plant in Sussex, N.B. (Deborah Irvine Anderson/CBC)
"There's a huge move right now in food, a lot of emphasis on protein delivery," said MacVey. "Nut butter is a really natural way, an easy way to provide protein for people who are interested in it."

She said nut butter has now become 80 per cent of the company's business.

But there's also a future for those old standby products of the company, teas and spices.

"I would say that the grandfather brands, the King Cole brands specifically, right now we're looking at strategies to break out of the region," she said. "We are certainly present in Ontario and Quebec, right now in Quebec we're the number six tea, which I'm really pleased about. I'd like to see us climb up that ladder a little bit, and I really need to see us move further west."

From the Information Morning interview by Steven Webb