What does your role involve?
Alongside my partner Steven, I founded Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in 2001 and I oversee all commercial aspects of the business, including P&L, marketing, strategy and the overall growth and prosperity of the company. We also see it as our mission to help the UK enjoy better coffee both out and about and at home.
What is it the company does?
Union Hand-Roasted Coffee is an artisan coffee producer and roaster based in East London. We source coffee through Union Direct Trade, roast it, and sell it to high-end hotels, coffee shops and restaurants, as well as online and in selected supermarkets. In 2015, we launched CoffeeClub, our coffee subscription service which is continuing to grow.
Our business model – Union Direct Trade Direct – is what makes us different. It is our heart and soul. It is a way of interlocking sustainability with exceptional quality coffee. Through Union Direct Trade, we develop intimate and longstanding relationships with farmers, paying well over the International Fairtrade minimum price.
We place a huge emphasis on developing coffee growing communities through knowledge share, financial support and transparency. This is great for them, but for us too as we source increasingly superlative coffee. A real win-win situation that shows how sustainable business can inspire growth.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I originally trained as an optician. But during a career break in San Francisco in the early 1990s, Steven and I fell head-over-heels for speciality coffee, which wasn’t really available in the UK at the time. So we made it our mission to bring speciality coffee to the UK and set up our first roastery in an Essex Workshop, which then merged with the Seattle Coffee Company. When this, in turn, was acquired by an international coffee company, we left and struck out on our own once again to found Union. That was 15 years ago, and the business has gone from strength to strength ever since.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Someone who, through their passion for a subject, understands the area in which they work, and constantly looks for new ways of defining or interpreting the market and its challenges. A good leader inspires their teams with a vision for the future shape and nature of the business. Leadership is also about finding the right balance between providing structure, and freedom to operate within the company so as to maximise everyone’s involvement.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Craft coffee has exploded in recent years, so maintaining our position as leaders in the sector has been an interesting challenge.
We’ve had to ensure we remain at the forefront of trends and practices, and resist the temptation to compromise our principles.
We’re now one of the largest craft companies in the UK, putting us in the strong position of being able to supply to companies large and small, making us unusual.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I’m very fortunate that my role affords me the opportunity to travel to coffee origin countries several times a year.
While these trips are hard work, with intense agendas and not always staying in comfortable surroundings, being up in the mountains of Guatemala or the hills of Rwanda provides an amazing break to routine and I always return energised (if somewhat dusty and tired).
When I’m not travelling, I enjoy daily walks with my dogs in the local forest which is a real stress buster.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always been science-minded, which is why I trained as an optician.
This actually translates well into the world of craft coffee as it taught me how to explain technical jargon to people.
It’s also helped me to communicate what we do, by learning to develop analogies and stories.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about then?
My pet hate is when people don’t take ownership of issues and challenges. If you're faced with a problem, think it through and act on it all the way from start to finish, don’t just move it on to somebody else’s pile!
We’ve always taken a lot of care in recruiting a team of people who share my desire to build a great service-oriented business so fortunately this doesn’t happen very often at Union.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
The business has grown every year since inception, and we’re aiming to accelerate this in the coming years, but as always in a sustainable way.
We’re keen to grow our online channels, and increasing supply to the trade will remain fundamental – particularly if we can achieve scale by working with larger businesses.
We’d also like to have cemented our position in the industry, and helped to guide in the right direction in terms of sustainable development.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Do what you love, figure it out as you go along and stay true to your principles.
Thinking back to our Essex workshop, we had only a vague notion of how to roast coffee and how the industry worked.
The learning curve seemed practically vertical at the time, but it was an utter labour of love, so we learnt, refined and consolidated as we went.
Looking back over more than two decades in coffee, Steven and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.