Mercanta director talks Covid, coffee and the challenges of leading a small team spread across six different countries

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on October 30th 2020, 9:09am

Founded in 1996 from a small office in southwest London, Mercanta The Coffee Hunters has grown into a business that sources a huge variety of outstanding coffees from 20 different producing countries. It boasts an experienced team of coffee hunters spread across six warehouses on three different continents. By and large, the company has been able to cope well in pivoting to deal with the challenges of the ongoing Covid-19 situation, and it is more the challenge of having to continue to lead such a diverse team spread all over the globe that keeps director, Stephen Hurst, on his toes from a leadership perspective.

In an honest interview with the Leaders Council’s Matthew O’Neill, which featured on our leadership podcast series, Hurst was pleased with the ability of the business to pivot over the last few months as many of the company’s clients in the hospitality sector were affected quite quickly.

He explained: “The pandemic has affected us quite considerably. We supply artisan craft and speciality coffee roasting companies in the UK all over the world and they in turn supply the out of home café, restaurant, and hotel sector, and that has been heavily affected by Covid closures and that in turn affects our clients who supply them, which then has a knock-on effect on us who source the beans.”

Fortunately for Mercanta, the pandemic has not had a detrimental impact on its supply chain.

Hurst added: “The supply chain of buying raw unroasted coffee beans is complex anyway so Covid didn’t do much to intensify that. It is the falling demand for the product and our clients closing that has really had the biggest effect. From the supply side, we have not had the problems we usually have though. We move coffee beans from complex inland locations, for example countries vulnerable to labour strikes and natural disasters, and we have seen trucks stuck at borders that they have been unable to cross because of restrictions, but by and large it isn’t a wholesale problem on the supply side.”

While the virus has had a tangible effect on the customers that Mercanta supplies, the issue has been somewhat offset by an increase in home consumption and more demand for clients who supply retailers.

Hurst said: “Some of the things that have happened, like a huge switch to home coffee consumption, has seen coffee consumers become more discerning which is good for the kind of quality coffee beans we supply. Some of our clients who considered rationalising the number of product lines they had have changed their minds because grocery sales have been so strong they’ve kept certain lines of our products on that they perhaps wouldn’t have carried on with and may have discontinued.

“In terms of us directly adapting, we have found ways to alter our business which has a lot of laboratory tasting sessions which have been affected, but we’ve adapted protocols to deal with that. Rather than travelling out to our labs across the world like we normally would, we had a live Zoom call where we hosted a coffee cupping and tasting session with one of our suppliers in Brazil hundreds of kilometres away.”

The use of technology has been a significant help in keeping the UK branch of the business connected with Mercanta’s various outposts across the world, but even in the everyday environment of running the business pre-pandemic, maintaining an inclusive business across such a small but diverse team has been one of Hurst’s biggest challenges, by his own admission.

“Our business is unusual. We are a relatively small company but are spread across five or six locations like Seattle, Dubai, Glasgow, Kingston-upon-Thames and Singapore, so keeping the business inclusive is challenging, just in terms of making sure everyone is in the loop and up to date on matters.”

Yet working with such a team and presenting Hurst with such a challenge has, in his view, helped him blossom into an inclusive leader.

“As a leader, I try to be inclusive and hands on to include myself in the day-to-day activity of the company. I look after some of our customer accounts myself, I’m involved in the day-to-day lab testing and coffee tasting we do and also strategy planning. One of the biggest issues to contend with is the geographical and multicultural diversity of our 23-strong team across multiple time zones and locations. That management can be challenging but it is something I relish when I wake up every day.”

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash


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