Continuous improvement – a conversation with Jan Lühmann

Jan Lühmann was until the end of May 2020 Global Head of Procurement for Jacobs Douwe Egberts. I spoke with him while he was on ‘gardening leave’ before becoming Co-CEO of Bernhard Rothfos, the Hamburg based mainstream trading arm of Neumann Kaffee Gruppe, in September 2020.

You’re one of the few people I’ve met who has moved from a merchandising role to a buying role, and then back to a merchandising role. What’s the main difference between merchants and roasters?

Technology, brand building and process are more important for a roaster than for a trader or merchant. Roasters focus a lot on technology, be it single serve, instant coffee or other proprietary USP’s. The roasting industry also has a strong emphasis on process, while the trading mindset is nimbler and more reactive as it needs to quickly adapt to market situations and shifting client needs.

In the past, I understand that some roasters set up trading departments but have since closed them. Is that correct?

There have been waves of this.  Both roasters and farmers are easily attracted to the idea of going direct, to cut out the middleman – the evil trader. And on the surface, many will agree that this makes sense. However, they quickly find out that the evil trader has many real and vital service functions. Roasters also found that trading is counter to their industrial DNA.

I don’t think it is possible to run a true trading functionality within an industrial company.

You are now moving to Neumann….

After 35 years in the coffee business, origin and trading, I spent the last 7 years with Jacobs Douwe Egberts. Two years ago, they promoted me to Global Head of Procurement, still in charge of the coffee and tea buying, but as well everything else such as packaging, machinery and even digital media. I found that I didn’t enjoy that. I really wanted to go back to what I love, which is coffee. I’m a coffee guy.

Neumann Kaffee Gruppe is the world’s largest green coffee house. They are a traditional and yet modern coffee firm with a focus on the product, on customers, the entire supply chain.  They value relationships and have a long-term commitment to coffee, and only to coffee.  So, when the opportunity came to become Co-CEO of Bernhard Rothfos, I jumped at it.

Is there a dichotomy, a divergence, between a roaster’s commercial department and its sustainability department? The sustainability people want to make sure that farmers stay in business, but the commercial people just want lowest price possible.

The people in both the sustainability and commercial departments of roasters have specific targets to achieve. Yes, there is the commercial drive to buy cheap, but it’s for management to pull those contradictions together and align them into a coherent brand strategy

Many roasters struggle with this, but that is what is so interesting about the coffee business in general. It is complex. It is changing. It has tensions. And those tensions will be resolved, sometimes with more of an emphasis on the commercial aspect, and sometimes with more of an emphasis on the sustainability aspect.

In the long run the consumer is the ultimate arbiter on those choices.

Many roasters only buy certified coffee. There seems to be a lot of certification systems: are there too many; and are they effective?

It’s very easy to be critical of certification.

My view is not that there are too many certifiers, or that they do a bad job. I strongly believe that the people in the certification business are good people who mean well and who do make a positive difference.

However, it is imperfect. And whatever positive impact one has in coffee producing countries the situation will remain imperfect. We are thus certifying imperfection.

There is a risk that you’re over promising. Even though the legal wording in the documents is smart enough so that the occasional unacceptable incident will not compromise a roaster’s legal position, consumers will nevertheless expect perfection.

Also, the desire by roasters to portray perfection can lead to a misallocation of resources. How much of the global sustainability spend reaches farmers and makes a real difference, and how much serves to “prove” perfection in a roaster’s supply chain? As a coffee industry, I believe we should be moving towards a mindset of transparency. Acknowledge the imperfections and then focus on mitigation and continuous improvement.

One of the things I’m most proud of at JDE was to be part of the effort to start a different thinking – to move from a mindset focused on certification to one where you acknowledge the imperfections in the supply chains, and then be a part of remedying them, ideally in a pre-competitive way.

So, you are saying that certification is part of the solution, but it’s not sufficient?

Yes. Also, let’s not forget that the traders are doing what the roasters are asking of them. The trade is a service provider to the industry. The buck stops with the roaster.

So, what is the solution?

People are very fast with quick answers, quick conclusions and one-liners, but coffee is complex.  There are a lot of tensions around development and sustainability, but you can’t limit the discussion to agriculture when many of the challenges are social.

The economic challenges in coffee producing countries aren’t always rooted in the price and productivity of coffee alone; they are often driven by societal issues. Many of the good NGOs are working on that.

The realities of coffee are just as varied and diverse as the different tastes of coffee: complex, contradictory, fascinating and not easy to resolve. But many very positive and engaging discussions are on-going.

Are you a coffee addict?

Yes, I love this business. You can touch it, feel it, smell it. It’s tangible.  I like the physicality of coffee: the beans and the beverage. I like the social aspect of coffee: it’s a people’s business.

Thank you, Jan for your time and input.

This is a short extract of an interview that will appear in my forthcoming book Merchants & Roasters – Conversations over Coffee.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2020

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