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Coffee and a chat with our MD Nick

As such a challenging year comes to a close, we thought it would be great to gain some insight and words of wisdom this month from our MD Nick Thompson.

Nick’s been with DRW since 2009 when he joined as Finance Director and in 2017 became Managing Director.

Tell us a bit about you career and how you became an MD

My professional background is in finance.  After many years of working in full time Finance Director roles, I joined the FD Centre, an organisation which provides the services of experienced Finance Directors to entrepreneurial businesses on a part time basis.

It was through the FD centre that I joined DRW in July 2009. I started on a one day a week basis, building an in-house accounting team. It was during the financial crisis with extreme volatility in currencies and coffee prices. My job was to take control of our own accounting and reporting to give the directors the information they needed.

At that time it was Simon and a team of five (two traders, a bookkeeper, a logistics controller (Adriana) and a QC person.  Adriana is still with the business and part of our current team of 22 people.

By mid-2017, the business had grown to a level of complexity that required a senior operational person to work alongside Simon.  We agreed that I would join the company full time as Managing Director, keeping the finance brief and taking charge of day-to-day operations.  Simon took the role of Chairman. I had always wanted to test myself in a Managing Director role and jumped at the chance to do this.  Simon told me that since I had had a eight year interview with the business, he was happy to appoint me!

My three year period as MD so far has coincided with some considerable events. The shadow and then the reality of Brexit being present throughout, added to by COVID-19 (which has been with us for most of 2020) as well as driving the continued expansion of the business. My role has been a very full one so far.

What does a typical day look like now?

Like most MDs in 2020, the typical day is spent at home, email traffic is considerable with Teams video meetings and videos calls the new normality in our remote working regime. Teams chat has replaced the office buzz and banter, which although is great for keeping contact within working teams immediate and fun, it’s not quite the same.

I much prefer to see people. I am a task-orientated person (some would say a completer finisher). I spend a lot of time chasing things up, getting things off the list. The COVID-19 situation has created too much of a short-term focus for my liking. It’s a challenge to think strategically with so much changing in the short term.

Share a bit about your career before DRW

After University, I trained as a Chartered Accountant at Touche Ross (now Deloitte) in Leeds.  I moved to London in 1985 and have been here ever since. After 12 years in the accountancy profession, I moved into commerce in 1991.  I’ve worked in restaurants, hotels and retail with aspirational brands (Conran Restaurants, Conran Shop, Early Learning Centre), international auction house (Bonhams) and property (major Japanese construction business, Taisei Corporation and UK quoted house-building, Berkeley Group). Many of these roles were at the FD level and I travelled widely with many of them and worked with many well-known entrepreneurial businessmen.

What would you be doing if you weren’t at DRW?

In my dreams, I would be part of the Test Match Special team travelling the world commenting on cricket test matches.  In another dream, I would travel to follow the ATP tennis tour which covers 64 tournaments in 31 countries – visiting all the those great locations.

Do you have any hobbies?

As you can see, I have always been a big sports fan. I played rugby, cricket, football, squash to a good standard when I was younger and I am now an avid follower of many sports.

My house is also a bit of a hobby (there’s always work to do) with gardening and family also taking up time.  In pre-COVID times, restaurants, exhibitions and travel all with my wife and family formed part of the agenda –  somewhat on hold at the moment.

Where did you grow up? And where do live now?

I was born in Lincolnshire and brought up in Bedford.  When I was 18 my family moved to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. I went to University and then after 5 years in Leeds, I came to London in my late 20s and met my now wife.

For the past 20 years, we have lived in Dulwich, SE London.  The two things I like about where I live is the sense of achievement in creating a family home out of a property which was boarded up and basically uninhabitable when we bought it and secondly, the sense of space and calm living in a peaceful place that is still only 10 minutes on the train to London Victoria.

Any local gems you’d like to share

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, the UK’s oldest public art gallery.  Fine pictures, old masters, great events and a really nice café (although I cannot comment on the sourcing of the coffee).

What do you think have been DRW’s biggest challenges through the pandemic?

Facing into the uncertainty caused by the first lockdown and not knowing what the implications would be our business. Undertaking those difficult conversations with the team, whether it was for furloughing, redundancy or organisational changes.

Everyone in our business has made some form of personal sacrifice to help ensure the operational survival of this business in 2020. We now have more much informed learnings from tracking the progress of the business through the first lockdown. It became clear that the coffee sector emerged in the summer in a reasonably robust state.

I was very pleased to be able to bring the team back together at the earliest opportunity and to continue on that basis for the rest of this year. The communications with the team have needed to be honest, realistic and open and I hope I managed, with Simon’s support, to achieve this. I appreciate that this will not have been easy and I’m grateful for their commitment – we have a great team.

How has the business had to adapt and change because of the pandemic?

The opportunity to see everyone in the office has been lost for now.  However, the way we have adopted technology means that we have adapted so much better than we would have done if this had happened say 10 years ago.

The use of Teams enabled us all to come together every Monday morning to just check in with each other to see how we are doing and to do so at any other time and in any combination as may be necessary.  We have also had to implement remote working at short notice and have found that our trading, logistics and finance work can be done remotely. The quality control team have continued to work on-site, meaning the office has therefore never closed, with having to make it a safe environment being a priority.

What have been some of the company’s successes over the lockdown

Realising that conventional marketing and development (trade fairs, customer and producer visits) had to be replaced with alternative ways of meeting our relationship partners.  All marketing now focusses on web, social media and other digital content and opportunities.  We have utilised the skills in the team to provide digital platforms for customers and producer with virtual cuppings and other presentations by partners.

We have also realised the benefit of all the Brexit planning we started in 2018 and 2019 which created a fully independent European business which is now well placed to service our European mainland customers in 2021.  With more European warehouse hubs now available we have delivered our strategy of taking as much risk out of our supply chain as possible.  A policy that is detrimental to the UK economy unfortunately, but which is beneficial to our customers in Europe.

What words of wisdom do you have for other businesses to survive challenging times?

Keep talking. Keep close to your customers and suppliers.  Wrap your arms around your team.  COVID-19 affects everyone.  Our experience has been that partners have been open to discuss their own experience of coping with the challenge.  There has been a feeling of being ‘in it together’. My Monday morning advice to our team has often just been to say keep focussed on what you do and try to keep making good decisions one by one.

What have been the biggest learnings that you’ll be taking into 2021?

For me, 2020 reminds me that even at this stage in my career you never stop learning. New circumstances require you to find solutions to issues that you have not experienced before.  I don’t think any UK MD has experienced the business management demands of a global pandemic before.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

A return to some form of normality, of course.  Having the variety of life that we took for granted before the pandemic struck returned to us.  For me, this is the reopening of the hospitality sector, a two-week holiday in the sun and a day at the test match.

What’s been keeping you grounded?

An underlying belief that we will come through this and that it is not beyond the collective scientific ability of the cleverest people in this world to find an antidote to the virus. The comfort and company of family and friends is also key to my sanity.  I know that so many people have had a miserable experience this year for one reason or another.

Do you have a mantra you live by?

Never be complacent, be mindful of your responsibilities and keep pushing on.

And finally…

How do you take your coffee?

Black, no sugar (preferably a tasty Brazil).  Remember I don’t have time for a great deal of cupping!