Back in 1970, Derrick Wakefield and his wife set up DR Wakefield to supply great coffee to everyone from small private roasters to large multinationals. Derrick himself headed up the buying and selling side of the business, while his wife’s focus was on keeping all things accounting-related in check. “I’d come from Tetley Tea”, says Derrick, “where I was coffee manager. They moved their headquarters out of London, and I didn’t want to go with them. Rather than go and work for someone else, I decided that I was young enough and knew the industry well enough to start a business on my own.”
Our interview with Derrick is the first in a three-part series, exploring the past, the present and the future of DR Wakefield and the coffee industry as a whole.
Since 1970, the coffee industry has seen huge changes … but what’s the biggest development in Derrick’s eyes? “Communications”, he says, without a pause. “We used to send cables to our customers and farmers, using Acme and Bentley’s codes. When the telex networks and emails came in, they were a great thing for most businesses.”
It now takes far less time to get things done. “Back then”, he says, “you received an order, and to negotiate, you had to send a cable. When telex came, you could talk directly – it was a godsend. We lived in the dark ages!”
Derrick describes the industry landscape in the 1970s as “mindblowing”. “We had to contend with strikes, three day weeks and high interest rates. Coffee was on quota back then too: coffee was only released quarterly in set quantities, and there was a limit to how much you could buy.”
Elsewhere, the industry has become more balanced: “When I first started, it was rare to find female coffee buyers or customers. Now, women trade at the top. The glass ceiling has well and truly broken in the industry.”
As the coffee industry has developed, Derrick believes DR Wakefield has also changed to reflect new trends. “Freedom to trade without coffee quotas is by far the biggest change”, says Derrick, “but there have been plenty of other changes too. The coffee scene has shifted: roasters are now much more concerned with sustainably traded coffees and those that meet higher quality specifications. The consumer looks for Fairtrade, organic and specialist coffees.”
DR Wakefield’s customer base has also seen some shifts over the decades. “We’ve seen a real resurgence in the coffee shop. In the 1950s when I first had my training, there were plenty of coffee bars and espresso bars about – all of which disappeared. Then, in the 90s, the boutique side came about, with lots of little stores opening, giving us a much wider customer base. Previously, our market was smaller but consisted of much bigger buyers: buyers such as Tetley, Twinings and Nestlé. Our restrictions to growth were the high price of coffee, and the presence of quotas – globalisation has changed everything.”
There’s one thing that’s remained consistent throughout DR Wakefield’s history, says Derrick, and that’s the relationships the team have with both farmers and customers. “Our relationships have always been good – it’s an important part of what we do and remains important to this day. We don’t hide buyers and sellers from each other, and going out and meeting people is important, whether they’re suppliers or customers. That’s why the team spends so much time travelling across the globe – there are people that we’ve worked with for 15, 20 years and we’re keen to keep those relationships strong.”
“Thanks to technology”, says Derrick, “communication with both farmers and customers is now so instant – people who now work in the industry are far more technical than I ever was.” When newspapers first began to print opening and closing coffee prices, it was a big deal. “I remember visiting a roaster in Burnley 20 years ago and giving him a price for a lower-grade robusta. He said no and told me to look at The Telegraph, where he’d seen the prices printed – he took those as gospel.”
Now, the request for information is even greater. “Even the smallest of customers want to know exactly where each coffee was grown, at what height, and what the level of rainfall is in that location”, he says. “Simon (Wakefield – Derrick’s son and Managing Director of DR Wakefield) got in at the birth of this movement towards greater information. One large company approached two or three suppliers to ask about Fairtrade coffee, and Simon was the only person who could reply – we won that business. When Simon was working in Papua New Guinea, he worked very much in the traditional ways, but embraced the specialty coffee scene when he returned – great news for DR Wakefield.”
While Derrick’s been away from the industry for some time now, he’s still partial to a Swiss Water decaf and is still amazed by the way in which the industry continues to grow and evolve. “I don’t interfere with the running of DR Wakefield”, he says, “it’s perfectly well run. While I’m no longer involved, I still enjoy talking with local coffee shops and roasters about the industry – it’s been an enormous part of my life.”
Stay tuned for part two in our interview series, where we speak to Managing Director Simon Wakefield about DR Wakefield today.
For more on the current and future faces of the coffee industry, visit our blog.