Originally created 06/18/97

Internet Is Importer-Exporter's Cup of Tea



If it wasn't for his last name and the Internet, John Geerlings would still be John Geerlings, printer. Instead, he's John Geerlings, printer and international importer-exporter of Irish tea and Dutch bulbs.

It started about four years ago, when the Babylon, N.Y., man was taking his first baby steps on America Online.

"I'm the kind of guy who every time he moves to a different city picks up a phone book and looks for people with my name," said Geerlings, 37. "It's such an unusual name."

So when he realized one of the features on AOL was a name search of other users, he found one other member with the same last name. He dropped this Frans Geerlings fellow a quick e-mail.

Frans was quick to respond. He said he was a painter living in Oregon and had left his native Holland when he was in his 20s. With nothing but their names and AOL in common, the two struck up a friendship.That was until John mentioned his uncle, Pete Geerlings.

"Uncle Pete had settled in Waterloo, Iowa, and controlled about nine states in the animal-feed business," John said. "As pigs are weaned off their mother's milk, well, he invented some kind of baby formula for pigs. He made millions."

He had also employed Frans, another relative. Frans now had something else in common with his AOL pal and distant cousin. Blood.

The years went by, and like many people who start out exploring the wired world through an online service, John graduated from AOL to the Internet.

"I got an ISP (Internet Service Provider), I got Netscape, I learned about search engines," John said. And, of course, last fall he used the search engines to find more Geerlings.

"One was a Geerlings bulb company," John said. "It was formed in 1882 and is one of Holland's largest producers, exporting to Japan and Germany and, to a limited extent, to the U.S."

John fired off a typically friendly e-mail to Rob Geerlings, who, with his brothers, ran the Dutch company that was started by their great-grandfather. Rob (who is not related to John) wrote back, and the two started another Internet friendship.

"We just wrote back and forth," John said. "And I introduced him over e-mail to Frans."

By this time, John had turned his Internet use into something more than a way of developing an extended family. During a vacation in Ireland, John had fallen in love with a breakfast tea called Barry's, and it occurred to him that the members of the Irish-American diaspora might be sorely missing this delicious, much-loved brew.

So he came up with a proposal to the Cork County tea company: He would sell their tea over the Internet to Americans and anyone else who couldn't get their hands on the precious leaves and bags.

Since he started the venture at http://www.barrystea.com last fall, his business has grown about 20 percent a month. It was almost instantly profitable, because his initial outlay was tiny. And he's taking orders from all over the country and as far away as Japan and Australia.

Then he thought of the bulbs. "So I said to Rob, if you're interested in trying to sell bulbs in the States, I'm on the East Coast, and I have a cousin on the West Coast," John said. "And I sell tea on the Internet. I have the distribution system."

Rob and Frans loved it. They put their heads together, from thousands of miles away. They found a good domain name, http://www.dutchflowers.com, and started work on the site. They found a hosting service in Pittsburgh. Frans worked on the design. John did the programing. Rob uploaded official company artwork and planned for the shipping.

"All three of us do our little things that we do," John said. The three split profits evenly.

None of the three are counting on Internet orders to put them in the ranks of the new breed of overnight cyberspace millionaires. John is still printing, Frans keeps painting, and Rob is keeping his old lines of distribution wide open. But, so far, it's giving them a new venture to enjoy together and apart.

"All my life I've been looking for something," said John, who also does free-lance Web site design. "I've had 21 different jobs. I've always wanted a job that would make me want to get up on Monday morning. This doesn't even seem like work."