For impressive company image work in the coffee trade look no further than the development of Bolling Coffee, a Yorkshire roaster, into the additional identity of Grumpy Mule.
Clive Balmforth set up Bolling in 1979 to supply the local catering market with freshly roasted coffee. A friendship with one of the founders of the Rancilio espresso machine company led to an enthusiasm for espresso, and the company worked on a typical small-company basis: roasting during the day and delivering in the evenings. When Ian Balmforth took over the company from his father, he became more and more involved in travelling the world to meet new farmers and co-operative managers, to the stage where Bolling eventually devised an entirely new brand for high quality delis, farm shops nationwide and the foodservice trade where a caterer needs a very high quality coffee brand which might be Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance or Organically certified. This is the Grumpy Mule… a name which, it is said, may have its origin within the management of Bolling Coffee.
Who are you, and can you sum up the USP of your company in a sentence?
Ian Balmforth, age 48, managing director of Bolling Coffee Ltd. Our USP is that Grumpy Mule Distinctive Coffee brings the best directly-sourced coffees, brewing equipment, training and long-term support to the foodservice market, thereby maximising their profitability.
What were your ambitions for your career, and in what way(s) did they come anywhere near what you are doing now? In what ways did your education (general or university) prepare you for what you are doing now?
The ambition, since the age of 8-ish, was always to run my own business. I have achieved this, but it is not how I expected it to be. I wanted to be able to make a difference in an industry by harnessing those around me to achieve. I believe we are beginning to do this, but the frustration is that things always take longer than I want…
My education was business-related. I had been influenced that manufacturing was the way to go. The theoretical nature of any degree does not prepare you for future life, but my sandwich year from university opened my eyes to the possibilities in business and I loved it!
What is the best bit of sales and marketing advice you have ever been given, and would be prepared to pass on? If you were able to give one piece of advice to your younger self, starting in business for the first time, what would you say?
This may sound superficial, but is completely true and I honestly believe it. My first sales manager commented that I was ‘down to earth, sincere and had a great smile’. To this day I believe that if you smile (and mean it) and are sincere, then you will get more sales.
If I could retrospectively give myself advice, it would be to concentrate more on developing a meaningful brand by spending more time and money on marketing. I used to believe that if you had a great product or service, people would buy it without me having to ‘shout about it’. How stupid this was. I wish I had developed the 4 ‘P’s’ of marketing (price, product, promotion, place) much earlier – Grumpy Mule would be further advanced if I had!
What was your most memorable success in marketing?
I have had a few memorable ones – and many forgettable ones! In 1999, against my better judgement (and my bank balance) I engaged a PR company to try and raise our profile in the industry. The only result of this was an article in a trade publication. The coincidence was that the article was published the week before I met a customer for the first time – and they had read it! That was my first PR lesson – that PR does not make any sales, but it makes the first meeting slightly more comfortable if the customer knows what you do from a third party.
What was your most forgettable experience, and what did you learn from that?
One that I always remember… I had successfully demonstrated an espresso machine to the managing director of a large group and she gave me the order on the spot. I was so delighted to have gained the sale that all I could think about was packing up and getting out of there. Only when she forcefully reminded me that it is customary to say ‘thank you’ when you receive an order, did I wish the ground would open up and swallow me! It is vital to say ‘thank you’ and I always do – because I mean it.
What do you enjoy about working with the coffee-house and café-bar trades, including the barista fraternity?
My job as a supplier is to help our customers meet their objectives, usually to increase their profits. We must act as consultants, bringing together a combination of equipment, coffee, training and new ideas – I gain immense satisfaction from seeing the results.
The modern barista fraternity have raised expectations about the quality of coffee you should receive as a customer. This is fantastic for a roaster as many modern baristas are open to new ideas and new coffees. I love understanding peoples’ ideas and aims, and working with them to bring fresh new coffees to the market.
What should the café-bar trade really understand about your product to get the best from it?
That the Grumpy Mule brand exists to enable them to communicate with their consumers in order to sell more coffee. Coffees that we source must meet our strict principles – this is not marketing ‘bull’, we mean it. The principles of the highest quality coffee, traceability, sustainability and ethical trading are established because we believe they are correct and will grow our customers’ businesses.
What will be the biggest potential prospects for your product sector in the café-bar trade in the coming months? And what will be the biggest threat?
The biggest potential prospects for Gumpy Mule are those customers in every sector of the foodservice market who wish to move their coffee service to a new level and communicate that to their consumers.
The biggest threat is from those foodservice operators who are happy to serve poor quality in the hope that consumers will not know the difference.
Is being a typical Yorkshireman an asset in business, and if so, why?
Thank you – being a typical Yorkshireman is the best compliment anyone can give!
In general business, coming from the north of England is usually not an advantage. I do not have a strong northern accent because it has mellowed due to too much exposure to other accents, but in some quarters coming from ‘up north’ can be construed as being ‘a bit simple’. Yorkshiremen are known to be tight, and this is an advantage – because it is true. The downside is that the majority of the business in the UK is in the south-east, so I have to travel further than others.
Ideally, what will you do with your retirement?
It is not on the agenda but if it were, and I was young, healthy and affluent enough, I would like to work, free of charge, for the Rainforest Alliance and help coffee farmers develop and promote their crops to buyers around the world.
What’s the best business freebie or business gift you’ve ever had?
I don’t get many. We are a pretty straight company and, whilst they can be great to receive, it is also nice to be able to give them occasionally. A recent receipt was a day spent at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. A memorable one is a case of ‘Heoftsbok’ beer at Christmas….