Barbours: A Name as Old as Canada Itself

The first Barbours location at Market Slip (now Market Square) in Saint John (Image: Barbours family collection)

SUSSEX – A lot has happened in Canadian business since 1867. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the success of Sussex’s Barbours, founded the same year as Canada. It’s another one of those quiet New Brunswick success stories.

You know the company’s popular King Cole Tea brand, but since 2011, Barbours has added to its product line, with more nut butters and baking goods, including extracts and spices. By adapting to changing markets, and focusing on strong relationships and consistent products, Barbours has stayed strong in a competitive market.

Sylvia MacVey’s family has been involved with the company since 1952 when it bought the company from the Barbour family. Today MacVey is president.

She explains she never planned to be involved in the business but after a family tragedy in the mid 1980s decided to step into a role with the company. She believed it had a lot of promise and a strong future.

The company’s continued success, she says, “relies upon our relationships with our customers and suppliers, being sure that the people who are selling to us and the people who are buying from us have a really good feel for who we are and understand what our demands are and what they’re getting when they support us … we don’t fit ourselves into a mould and refuse to change.”

Plus people really love the tea. 

Barbours president Sylvia MacVey

Barbours president Sylvia MacVey

“When people open a box of King Cole, they’re essentially going to get the same cup of tea that they got ten-years ago and fifteen-years ago. People trust that … Over the years other tea companies come and go … they start focusing more on price and return and don’t (put) as much emphasis on being sure the customer receives the best cup of tea that they can.”

First introduced in 1910, King Cole Tea has been a longstanding part of the Barbours group of brands. Drinking King Cole Tea is a tradition often passed down from one generation to another in Atlantic Canada.

“When people look at our King Cole Tea and when they taste it, it’s familiar, it’s comforting. It brings all these wonderful memories. Most people grow up with this tea in this region.”

King Cole Tea is now being sold across the country and MacVey hopes to spread the brand even further.

King Cole Tea production line

King Cole Tea production line

While the tea is exclusively sold in Canada, Barbours has conducted business with their other products internationally. MacVey says they’ve shipped as far as Germany and Poland for their co-pack and private label business and are now focusing much of that business in the states, where they’ve sent their products as far as California and Texas.

Despite doing business on an international level, MacVey says the company has no plans to move their plant from New Brunswick. She says the support they receive from both the provincial and federal government and clients in this area has been crucial to their ongoing success.

MacVey still has big dreams for Barbours and the Barbours brands. She hopes to make King Cole Tea the number one tea brand in Canada and Barbours a major business-to-business player in the North American market.

“I don’t think we do a really good job in this province of telling each other about our successes. There are huge opportunities in New Brunswick and all kinds of support and encouragement,” she said.

“We’re doing very well here in our little company and our growth has been phenomenal over the last five years … When you actually are hiring people and watching the numbers grow, everybody’s happy.”