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David Griswold, founder of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Company and the current president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is coming to the end of his term in office. He took some time from his busy schedule to sit down with Jennifer Magid of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal to talk about how his goals for his company and the SCAA have each affected the other in the last year.

JM: Youíve accomplished so much in the coffee world - how did you get started in the industry?

DG: I got started working for small-scale growers out of Mexico. It was almost a little bit by chance. I was trying to help them for a year while I was in Mexico. Coffee prices had fallen because the international coffee agreement had just expired and hadnít been renewed. I got involved in creating a company called Aztec Harvest (an importer of organic, shade-grown coffee from small-scale Mexican cooperatives). That was 1989. Now, itís been going on 15 years of working with specialty coffee growers. Sometimes itís family farmers, but itís usually people who are independent that are part of some larger vertical buying chain that are trying to find a way to compete in the market place.

JM: How do you think your companyís message is being delivered throughout the coffee community, in regards to your work with the SCAA?

DG: There are a couple things you do when youíre president of the SCAA. The first is you get to run the conference, and your personality can be part of how that conference looks. At Boston, people could judge what my value system is, sort of on the breadth and scope of what happened at the Boston show in terms of seminars and kinds of diversity. The conference was about sending the message, ďhow do we feel about our partners?Ē And we talked about things like pricing systems and excellence and quality- things I think really resonate with our members, because I think not everyone is going to be into the purchasing of coffee like an importer would be. What I liked about that show was that I think it really reflected the broadbase of our membership and their interests. And then, the second thing that you do as president is that you really try to help set a good road map, because you have over 120 or so volunteers on the committees, who meet several times a year and can provide a really good idea of where the organization is going.

JM: Do you think your viewpoint has influenced the SCAA substantially, or do you think they have come to you with the same views?

DG: Iíve got a company name that makes people think that Iím probably pretty far to one side of the equation. Sustainable Harvest, you must be sort of hippie dippy, and I think people who know me know that I do believe in helping people that need support. But in a way, itís a certain sort of self-help and letting the market do its way. Sustainability has a lot to do with using quality to help sustain your place in the market, which I think all the growers that we buy from are forced to realize that, itís not a hand out, itís not a certification system. Itís really a way of doing business.

JM: Was the presidency hard to do, what with running your company at the same time?

DG: Yeah. I think itís really hard on a company. Iím blessed with a staff both here and in our Mexico office that really picked up a lot of the workload for us while I was incredibly busy over the last 18 months. It was taking about half of my day to be president of the SCAA. People see you as a resource if they are having a challenge, which makes sense. But if you want to address those (challenges) and follow up, you find it does take a lot of time.

JM: What were the main issues that you found coming into the presidency? What have you kept as a priority from what was a main area of discussion before your appointment?

DG: The issues coming in were people wanted a clear vision of where we were going as an organization. I think that the frustration for volunteers was that they would do a whirlwind of work and it wasnít sort of completed. So I wanted to see what could we really focus on, because specialty coffee can encompass so much. It was a focusing effort.

JM: So, what are some things you have changed?

DG: A totally new website, totally revamped, much easier to navigate, it will really be a wonderful tool. Thereís a new logo and identity to the organization; itís sort of more stylish and typifies what the new generation is looking for - specialty coffee retailers and roasters. There are going to be more educational series held in different places. Not only do we have a great new operation in Long Beach that has a great training room, but itís become easier to become a member, to renew your membership, to get excited about new members because of the new tool kits that are being developed. The board has been restructured so itís really serving all its governance and judiciary responsibilities in an effective way. More transparency in how people are elected. Not just how theyíre elected, but if somebody decides to get off the board, how do we select the next person so that things arenít done randomly. Thereís so much to take on when youíre a volunteer, and you want to make a big difference.

JM: Do you think there was a lack of a system built before?

DG: I think that there are always different styles, and I think that things go in waves. Sometimes people might be really involved in the organization, other times they might be checking out- the economy might shift, a lot of things can happen. Itís a real credit to Ted Lingle and the staff at what theyíve been able to build. I think they feel really supported by the board that weíre not going to change direction. That weíve given a clear indication of where the committee should be going and that weíre committed to that.

JM: Has anything changed in the vision of your own company from this experience with the SCAA?

DG: What happens is you learn very quickly how important it is to focus and be very efficient and work with intensity. So many things come your way. You also learn a little bit better on which things to say yes to and which things to say no to. Because really, thereís jus t so many opportunities.

Itís been incredibly gratifying; you realize how much harder it is on the inside then it looks on the outside, and you realize how much change can be made if you do it in a way where youíre not directing, but you are getting everybodyís input and then youíre just facilitating.

JM: What are your favorite success stories and your biggest failures that you think youíve had in your career?

DG: To try to be an importer and to still be in the game, many people start off importing coffee and they last maybe a year or so. Youíre dealing with enormous quantities of capital, a lot of risk and youíre dealing with this product that comes from overseas; itís a huge success just to have weathered those storms and learned how to stay in the business. Iím really proud of the relationship coffee model. Itís what I think I really stand for. Itís not just oh neat, low cost coffee- you save10 cents and save the whales, itís really about relationships with other people from other cultures, and you may be totally dependant on them but not know it because of the way our economy works.

The failures - there was one year when I thought I had it figured out, and I bought a lot of coffee at high prices, and I just figured I would sell it- and the market dropped in half. I was bankrupt and I had to let go of all my staff and I remembered how sad I was. I thought it was all over. It finally took me a long time to realize that I really lost sight of the important things in life because I was sort of viewing the business as a reflection of myself. And sometimes you canít control it. That was the negative. The positive was, facing bankruptcy myself and being able to pull out of it, I was really able to know what farmers face now; if everything had always been really smooth for me it wouldíve been well, you know, get your game together. Instead when Iím talking to a farmer in that situation, I can tell them my story and how I wanted to figure out how to get out and I had no way. It really resonates. When you start to speak about somebody elseís experience and donít tell them what to do but how it impacted you, you realize you develop a connection and a trust. From there, steps happen where you start to create the path you all want together.

For more information on Sustainable Harvest, contact: Sustainable Harvest Coffee Company, Natural Capital Center, 721 N.W. Ninth Avenue, Suite 235, Portland, OR 97209. Tel: (503)-235-1119, Fax: (503)-296-2349, E-mail: info@sustainableharvest.com



Tea & Coffee - April/May, 2004
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