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Three generations of DR Wakefield, part 2: Simon Wakefield

DR Wakefield Managing Director Simon Wakefield has coffee in his blood. With father Derrick Wakefield having set up DR Wakefield in 1970, he spent his childhood enjoying trips to coffee-producing countries. “I’d spend my summers traipsing round plantations in Kenya”, he says. “A few years later, we must have been doing better as we did the same in Jamaica!”

Simon spent his early career working in logistics at a cocoa company before studying origin training in Papua New Guinea. He also spent a year at a winery in Australia understanding blending and how grapes turn into wine. “It was a year spent learning more about the tasting aspect than the business side of things”, he says.

In late 1986 he took over the reins at DR Wakefield, but it was never a given. “It’s always been a good, successful business,” he says. “My father would never have handed over to me if he didn’t think I was capable! It was a very fluid process: I was told that if it worked for me and I was able to, it would happen. I wasn’t obliged to do so.”

So began a new chapter in the business’s history, covered here in the second part of our series exploring the past, present and future of DR Wakefield and the wider coffee industry.

 

It’s all about family

DR Wakefield has always been a family-orientated business, with a culture to match – and not just because of our ownership. “When suppliers came to visit my father, they’d come to our house,” says Simon. “It was the same with customers. They’d always ask me when I was going to join the business – and after it happened, I’d have customers coming up to me at public coffee functions, telling others they’d known me since I was in shorts!”

This open-door policy that Simon saw as a child is one he’s embraced today. He still invites suppliers and customers to his home, and they still feel like part of the family. Yet while some things have remained the same, there have also been plenty of changes since Simon took the helm.

 

A quest for knowledge

“When I first joined DR Wakefield”, says Simon, “One customer told me that a Kenya AA was a Kenya AA, no matter where it came from. Back then, it was a fairly common statement, but in today’s environment, it would be considered very naïve: there are hundreds and thousands of different varieties of this one grade of coffee.”

Now, he says, knowledge is key. When he started out, access to information about coffee was limited: no internet and fewer people in the industry travelling meant information was harder to come by.

“It was the trader’s role to go and find coffee and bring it back to the roasters”, says Simon. “The cost of travel was pretty prohibitive too – in those days, it was a standing joke that the traders made the money, so they were the ones who could afford to go! The boundaries between roles are more blurred now. We’ve always encouraged our roaster customers to come to origin, and for farmers to come and visit those who roast their coffee – it’s all about traceability.”

As a nation, we’re becoming more interested in what’s going on in all aspects of our lives – and coffee is no different.”

“Customers want to know everything”, says Simon. “The name of the farmer, where he or she lives, how much they process, the type of processing they use, acreage, what else is produced… we need to know absolutely everything about our suppliers to keep our customers happy.” This offers plenty of benefits to DR Wakefield too, though. “It’s adding value”, says Simon. “The more you tell someone, the more excited they get about the coffee and the more they are likely to order.”

 

Changing faces

The coffee industry was, when Simon’s career began, very male-oriented. “You could count the number of women in the industry on your fingers: there were just one or two traders, and I think Nestlé had one or two female buyers. When you’d turn up at industry functions, most of the women there were plus-ones.”

Now, thankfully, things are very different (projects such as Café Femenino certainly help), but why have women embraced the industry? “Trading was a very male-oriented role”, says Simon. “There were plenty of coarse conversations and colourful language. Thirty years ago, the working environment – across many industries – was very different for women. Roasting was a very physical and dirty task, lugging around 60-70kg coffee sacks. Now, though, we’re seeing more and more female traders and female roasters. On the logistics and finance side of things, the industry is now biased towards women too.”

The way people speak to each other has changed, too. “As a junior, if I rang somebody on the phone, I’d call them Mr Smith or even Sir – nothing else was acceptable. It was pretty old-fashioned. I’d wear a suit and tie to work: even wearing a blazer wasn’t accepted. Every day, I’d wear a tie pin to keep my tie out of the coffee…but even with the tie pin, I got through a lot of ties!

“Now, customers can wear shorts and t-shirts, and here at DR Wakefield we gave up on wearing suits years ago. Most people in the industry are on first name terms now too – things have changed for the better.”

 

Changing markets

One of the biggest changes Simon has seen at DR Wakefield is the number of people the business works with. “Previously, we were very focused on a smaller number of clients in a smaller catchment zone, predominantly in the UK. Now, the business is more fragmented: there are more smaller roasters in the industry. Previously, larger roasters would have contract packed – done the deals for them – or they simply wouldn’t have existed. Everyone wants to roast now: it’s a way to add value to the coffee. It’s like being a chef: two different people can take the same ingredients but can create something completely different.”

And the global reach of DR Wakefield has also expanded over the years, with plenty more overseas business being done. “Our business is probably about 60% UK-based now”, says Simon. “We’ve ventured into Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and Southern Europe, and our focus remains outside the US.”

 

Some things never change

Despite the constant change in the industry, Simon tells us there are some things that will always remain the same.

“Trust and integrity are always a vital part of what we do”, he says. “We’ve always kept an openness to our supply chain: we’ve always told customers who our suppliers are and introduced them, and vice versa. We’ve built up plenty of trust over the years. In the coffee industry, you have to be certain that if you make a purchase, you’ll get the right coffee, at the right time, at the right price. If you’re buying a commodity that’s often not yet been picked, you’ve got to know that it will arrive. Building up that trust is a key part of how we operate.”

Simon is also pleased to be able to say that DR Wakefield is still 100% independent. “We’ve not sold a single share out to anyone – that’s not bad going after 46 years. And we have no intention of selling shares outside the business in the future either.”

 

Changing technology, changing relationships

Since Simon’s time at DR Wakefield began, technology has provided a step-change. “Production technology has changed dramatically”, he says. “It’s now far less of a gamble when processing – there’s less guesswork going into when coffee is ripe and how long to process it for.”

Communications technology has also had a huge impact on the coffee industry. The arrival of the internet led to a far more open market, with everyone knowing what others are paying, leading to a greater understanding of coffee pricing. Social media, says Simon, is now a major communication channel, whereby everyone from farmers to consumers can learn what’s trendy and what’s not in the world of coffee. New technologies have also upped the speed with which deals can be done. “Responses are much quicker now”, says Simon. “We were using Telex communications when we first started, which took time. Or, if we were buying from Papua New Guinea, we’d have to book a time for a telephone call, and could face anything from a 15-minute to a 24-hour wait – it could take three to four days to do a deal. Now, everything can be done in a matter of minutes.”

Ultimately, he says, you’re never out of contact. It’s an industry where relationships have become a little less formal, but certainly not less professional. Simon tells us how those in the industry are now seeing more of each other too. “There are more trade shows, more gatherings, more origin visits, more producers coming to the UK”, he says. “Things like our producer barbeque this summer and our ping pong events would never have happened before – where things used to be more formal, we’re now used to getting together and chewing the fat over a beer.

“There’s always been plenty of friendship in the industry”, he says, “But now life, in general, is a little more casual. At DR Wakefield, we’ve always tried to maintain that friendly, sociable approach – there’s no place for stuffiness here.”

Simon ends by telling us of a trip to Boston three years ago, where he attended a trade show at a conference centre with the hotel attached. On the last day, he and a friend from Melbourne were having a drink at the bar when the barman came up to them. “I see a different conference every week”, the barman said, “and I’ve never known the bar to be as packed as this! I see all different ages, races, religions and sexes; hipsters talking to suited people…it seems to be a very social industry, and I want to be part of it! What is it you do?”

This encounter, says Simon, is one that sums up the coffee industry perfectly. “The more you get people talking, the more they want to know”, he says. “It’s not the coffee that’s addictive – it’s the industry!”

 

To read part one of this series – an interview with Derrick Wakefield – click here – and keep your eyes peeled for part three with catalyser Henry.

For more on the current and future faces of the coffee industry, visit our blog.