Unification of Specialty Coffee Associations
Tracy Allen, c.e.o of Brewed Behavior and president of the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
By Jenny Neill
No formal agreement to unify Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) with Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) has been reached. However, by the time you read this, the respective boards will have begun drafting a definitive agreement, preparing for due diligence and developing the necessary material for a member referendum.
This merger comes after years of cooperation and collaboration. You need look only to the respective mission and vision statements of both associations to see why a unification makes sense. Words such as “quality,” “excellence,” “education,” and “community” feature prominently in both. One other word emerged as a key impetus behind this effort from interviews with association members, board members, and staffers: sustainability.
Paul Stack, now president of the SCAE board of directors, was the vice president of SCAE’s board of directors when he gave a presentation titled “Collaboration: A Global View” at the first Re:Co Symposium in Gothenburg, Sweden. In it, he introduced the unification process: “Both boards have come together and agreed to a shared vision. That vision is to create an effective, dynamic, and authentic institution to give voice and substance to the possibilities of specialty coffee worldwide.”
Describing his view of the shared vision, Ric Rhinehart, executive director of SCAA, said, “By and large the only change in terms of visioning is to expand to [having] a more global stance than the regionally or nationally focused stance that each organization has today.”
How did the organizations get here? Why does this matter now?
The Steps toward Unification
The SCAE move toward unification began with Stack’s Gothenburg Re:Co presentation. His talk traced the similarities in the activities and the missions of both organizations as far back as the 1990s. Stack cited the collaboration between SCAA and SCAE in organizing the World Barista Championship competitions as one example of how the two associations found common ground. The creation of World Coffee Events and the evolution of SCAA’s Symposium into Re:Co Symposium were two other examples of alignment.
Stack spoke of the many challenges facing the coffee industry in his Re:Co presentation. The issues are well-known among specialty coffee thought leaders: food security, land encroachments, pests and diseases, creating and maintaining labor forces for large or small coffee farms. These concerns and more take on greater importance as the coffee industry, including specialty, enters a cycle of consolidation.
In a post on the public SCAE website, Johan Damgaard, group c.e.o. of Johan & Nyström AB and a member of the SCAE board of directors, challenged specialty coffee professionals to look beyond their own businesses to the industry as a whole. He wrote: “We talk brewing times, extractions, new ways to prepare coffee and we fight and fuss when we should be working together and fight the mass industrial players who don’t care about sustainability or speciality (sic).”
Without increased specialty trade association collaboration, Stack said “…we would end up with small nationalistic narrow-minded fiefdoms fighting each other which is the underbelly of competition. So, this is the idea: if we don’t collaborate, we compete and the opposite of sustained is to die.”
SCAE approached SCAA out of a desire to take Symposium and, according to Peter Giuliano, senior director of Re:Co Symposium, “…to make it more overtly globally inclusive, and build the community worldwide.” According to Giuliano and Tracy Allen, president of the SCAA board of directors, Symposium as an event grew out of awareness that professionals whose careers had matured as SCAA did needed another type of community.
Giuliano said, “The thought leaders of specialty coffee needed a place to come together, interact with each other, and contemplate the ‘big issues’ our industry faces— like climate change, sociopolitical issues, macroeconomic trends, cutting-edge science, etc.”
The shift to Re:Co expands on the original zeitgeist of Symposium while maintaining a focus on high quality conversation in smaller venues. Two additional symposium events have taken place, including the aforementioned program in Gothenburg and another in New Zealand. Stack’s speech in Gothenburg came after the feasibility study on the unification idea had already begun.
After Official Talks Began
The boards met informally in 2014, and then formally, to explore the idea of a closer collaboration. However, the scope and complexities of merging the shared visions were daunting.
Allen explained further, “Well, the discovery from an actual business standpoint [involved] a lot of things [that] have been talked about for a long time. The truth is we’re all just coffee people, so we went out and [had] a discussion with the SCAE about how serious we were about it and [that we] were willing to invest in it.”
In order to ensure a fair and thorough vetting of all the issues, the two organizations agreed to hire a consultancy to facilitate the process. Even that, according to Allen, took some time. It was more than a year after the first official discussions took place that a consulting firm was selected to facilitate the feasibility study.
The organizations’ leadership teams and staff have been meeting with the consultants since. Each association also launched member surveys last fall. After reviewing survey results, the boards met jointly to hear how the consultants proposed moving forward. The next step in the process came in January of 2016: a vote by the SCAA board to approve writing a memorandum of understanding. The process is moving forward beyond that today.
Rhinehart expects the agreement, and a strategic and business plan which are also being created now, to be complete in the next several weeks. Once those details are hashed out, a referendum will be presented to both memberships for approval.
Unification of Specialty Coffee Associations
Christian Ott, director of coffee at Stone Creek Coffee.
Doubling Down on “Member First”
A turn of events that had nothing to do with the unification process took place just before the feasibility study process began in August of 2015. That June, the SCAA announced the end of regional barista competitions that triggered a backlash. The decision and the way it was communicated to members and to the public became the subject of scrutiny in trade media, in blog posts by thought leaders in the specialty coffee sector, and in private discussions among baristas and roasters worldwide.
SCAA members, some of whom have been active as competitors or judges, still express concerns about how communication about regional events is being handled.
Referring to what has happened in the months after the initial news of regionals being cancelled came out, Christian Ott, director of coffee at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said, “Communication really hasn’t been the greatest around this—it’s been a really big frustration for me and for our company.”
This misstep and the subsequent announcement of a new format for regionals could have derailed the work being done in the early stages of unification exploration. Instead, it served as a learning opportunity.
“Once I understood that this was not handled properly, as the president I made this the posterchild for all communication going forward,” Allen said.
Rhinehart’s September 2015 letter to the SCAA membership and the SCAA Unification website are just two of the ways the organization has attempted to increase transparency and communication about what has been happening to evaluate the proposed merger.
“One of the hard lessons we learned as part of how the barista communications were structured was that [we] have to always put the priority on communication to members because our existence is predicated on benefiting [our] members,” said Rhinehart.
Both Allen and Rhinehart emphasized that SCAA is an organization of members and that the association takes seriously the need to inform members first of major changes or new initiatives.
Of the unification process, Allen said, “The membership has full access to every piece of information that we’ve discovered and that’s on both sides. This [process] would never get off the ground without the support of the membership.”
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Ric Rhinehart, executive director of Specialty Coffee Association of America.
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Peter Giuliano, senior director for Re:Co Symposium.
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Adam Pesce, director of relationships at Reunion Island Coffee.
What Happens Next
Just because the information is available does not mean that members are reading it or are taking time to provide input. Rhinehart admitted figuring out the most effective means for soliciting input from a membership of more than 8,500 individuals has not been easy.
One method both organizations deployed was a survey. According to Rhinehart, membership surveys by trade associations in general struggle to get to a 3% response rate. With more than 700 responses in the SCAA survey, the response rate was more than double that minimum expectation. (The SCAE survey had a similar number of respondents.) Top concerns among both groups included a desire for “proper levels of transparency,” ensuring increased value to members, and the ability of the new organization to deliver on demand for educational opportunities.
Adam Pesce is director of relationships at Reunion Island Coffee in Toronto, Canada. His company is a member of SCAA and he serves on the board of the Coffee Association of Canada. He is optimistic that a merger between SCAA and SCAE will result in a better pooling of financial and educational resources.
Pesce said, “Most [specialty] roasters in Canada are part of the SCAA because there is a huge need for all that information. We all benefit from having that available and the only way to get it is through the SCAA.”
Much of the work happening now is being driven by the opportunity to update SCAA and SCAE members in person in Atlanta, Georgia during the SCAA’s annual Expo. There, the first opportunity to hear about the process at will be in Rhinehart’s Re:Co talk “On Mergers: Unifications and Acquisitions.”
Rhinehart confirmed plans to hold a town hall style meeting on the subject of Unification, though the final details were not yet confirmed. He said, “It will likely be on Saturday, but stay tuned for details.”
How can you provide input if you are not going to Atlanta for Expo? Allen suggested, “Read every email you get from the association. Be a member and use that member number, and vote.”