The status of the green-bean importer has risen significantly in parallel with the rise of ‘speciality’ coffee – as the trade learns more and more about what really goes on at origin. There has been a growing appreciation that the bean importers are more than just commodity traders or sack-shifters, but are pioneers who know a vast amount about coffee farmers and farming in some of the most unexpected and inaccessible places in the world. A prominent character in this is Simon Wakefield, who worked on his first coffee farm as a teenager… and has never stopped travelling to origin. In the relatively recent trend for making furnishing covers and fashion accessories out of used coffee sacks, a big ‘W’ logo is often visible – the users probably never realise this is the logo of one of Britain’s most-travelled coffee buyers.
Who are you, and can you sum up the role of your company in a sentence?Simon Wakefield, physically 48 years old, managing director. We are ‘the green bean coffee merchants’ bridging the link between farmer and roaster by providing the risk management of quality, price, availability and knowledge.
As we recall, you began on coffee plantations at a remarkably young age – did you ever have any other ambitions for a career, and in what way(s) did they come anywhere near what you are doing now? Did your education (general or university) prepare you for what you are doing now, or did you literally learn on the farm? And if so… in what ways did that turn out to be useful?
I guess all boys have the usual ambitions of being a racing driver or something similar. I did interior design (painting/decorating) and garden landscaping between education and overseas roles. But those aside, growing up in a family business where both your father and mother are involved on a daily basis there was no option. You got dragged on business trips or ‘family holidays’ to origin, and also on UK holidays stopped off at roasters.
It was a natural progression to end up working in the business, and the coffee industry is addictive. Even outside work, you mention coffee and everyone wants to talk about it – there has always been so much passion within and outside the industry.
I learned that the coffee industry covers travel to places and meeting people you would not normally – I suppose it was the University of Life.
With regard to the buying of green coffee, what is the best bit of advice you have ever been given, and would be prepared to pass on?
Don’t buy on description alone – you really need to know the actual product and the people who are handling it.
If you were able to give one piece of advice to your younger self, starting in the coffee business for the first time, what would you say?
Look at yourself and who you are – our industry deals with an agricultural product that covers every wealth, every nation, every religion, every everything. I look upon this as a privilege but it can be a distinct challenge too.
What was your most memorable success in business?
Getting an EC organic import license. This took about four months trying to explain how and where the coffee in Papua New Guinea was grown, and why I couldn’t supply an Ordnance Survey map outlining the coffee area!
What was your most forgettable experience? And what did you learn from that?
Having a long term supplier default on a big contract. We had been buying from them for many years, and paying good prices. But what had not been taken into consideration was crop failure and price volatility – it was the “it will never happen to me” scenario coming true. Because we had alternative suppliers (some from the same origin, some from similar origins) we were able to cover our position so that we did not let our customers down. But the lesson is that nothing is guaranteed – you must have a back-up plan.
What do you enjoy about working – even if indirectly – with the coffee-house and café-bar trades?
We are working more and more with this sector. Frankly, it’s great. There are new ideas and some rules about what you can use certain coffees for are being pushed out of the window. This gets us excited, keeps the enthusiasm up and the challenges for our suppliers active.
The coffee bar trade, at the sharp end, is not always entirely well educated in matters concerning the actual coffee with which they work. What would you like to see the café-bar trade really understand about the service you provide, to get the best from it?
The lack of education can be all along the chain. Coffee is often likened to wine, but wine is a finished product when it leaves the winery… it has been perfected by the wine maker. Coffee passes through many production stages from origin to destination and can be blended and made in many ways. It is an agricultural product reacting to the seasons, and it needs to be treated accordingly.
We are a coffee merchant who manages risk. We have years of practical experience and buying power. We are not a middle-man who prevents ‘direct trade’ – we have promoted open relationships for decades and believe we are all part of the chain to get the right coffee to the right market, in a hassle free and cost-effective manner.
What will be the biggest potential threat for a coffee trader in the coming months?
Supply of the right coffee, due to weather patterns and volatility of market.
You are extremely widely-travelled. Can you share some of your most memorable experiences in travelling to coffee plantations?
Throwing $30,000 cash, wrapped in a coffee sack, out of a plane window. It was a regular payment for the organic farmers in remotest Papua New Guinea and the safest way to ensure the growers got their money without being mugged.
Having a cup of coffee in a mud hut in Ethiopia, and once my eyes had adjusted to the dark, seeing a pregnant cow (the moo-ing kind !) next to me which was half in and half out of the hut.
Seeing snow on the ground at lunchtime and sweating in 35 degrees by late afternoon, having travelled over the Andes on the most dangerous road possible and ending up in the coffee areas.
But also, being greeted by complete villages when visiting the areas who supply us – a most humbling experience.
Ideally, what will you do with your retirement?
The industry is addictive, there are still exciting challenges ahead and retirement is not actually in my sights yet. But the first thing I will do is go on a course to learn how to learn to live harmoniously in the same house as my wife! Then I will be avoiding planes, but hopefully be well enough to do what I have not had sufficient time for – golf, sail, scuba-dive.