March 15, 2021 marked a key milestone for Mercanta, as the coffee supplier celebrated its 25th anniversary in business. In conversation with The Leaders Council, founder Stephen Hurst reflects on the last quarter of a century, discusses how far the business has come in that time, and gives thanks to all who have helped make the journey possible.
For a proud Hurst, Monday's anniversary represented far more than a mere milestone for the company: it was a marker of his own personal development as a business leader, having founded the business not long after leaving the finance industry and scaled a steep learning curve along the way, as well as overcoming numerous unavoidable hurdles.
Hurst recalled: “I was made redundant at Goldman Sachs at the end of 1995, and I was working my notice into the early part of 1996. Sometime around February 1996, I finished commuting up to the Goldman Sachs HQ on Fleet Street and registered this new business.
“I travelled around the world in March and April 1996, having those two precious commodities rarely available together - money and time. My trip was supposed to last three months, but one thing and another conspired to limit this trip to about five weeks. Mercanta then started officially ‘'trading’ in May or June 1996.”
Although it would be many years until the Covid-19 pandemic would force much of the UK workforce to begin operating from home, Hurst took to working from his residence in Mercanta’s fledgling years.
With the specialty coffee business barely in existence in the UK and Europe at the time, this was the direction Mercanta would ultimately venture in, with some of the company’s earliest customers including Monmouth Coffee Company, Cafes El Magnifico in Barcelona, James Gourmet Coffee, Reads Coffee, Den Gyldne Bønne [The Golden Bean] in Norway, Roberts & Co, and Lincoln & York.
Hurst continued: “It is fitting to pay tribute now to some of those early customers as the business reaches this significant milestone. Some of these are still customers of ours even to this day. The Golden Bean in Norway and another of our customers, JJ Bean Canada, were also both founded in 1996. Some of our suppliers have also been with us since the very beginning, such as Fazenda Cachoeira da Grama in Brazil, headed up by Gabriel de Carvalho Dias, Finca Las Nubes in Guatemala run by Sonia and Fabio Solis and Bibi Plantation in India overseen by Faiz Moosakutty.”
When the business had grown enough for Hurst to move it out of his personal living space, Mercanta’s first ever physical office and coffee lab premises were based in Sunbury-on-Thames, west London, not far from Hurst’s current residence. The company moved into its current Princeton Mews home in 2003.
“What was our first office building is now a dog grooming salon, and I am not sure what to read into that! But what I will say for anyone who aspires to start their own business is that all the business school teachings will not prepare you for the real world of running a company. It is integral to choose your business partner well, choose your employees well, and choose your financing or funding deal well.”
For Hurst, it was a steep learning curve in this respect.
“I made three large mistakes in this sense in the early days - none of them terminal - but all very costly. Amongst these setbacks, however, there were many great positives. My early days business partner Flori Marin was an integral part of the formative days of Mercanta, as were early investors like Faiz Moosakutty from Bibi Plantation, my parents Carole and Raymond Hurst, and our management consultants and investors Ron and Jennifer Chesterton.
“After a while Mercanta was a good company, but it was not a good business. Ron and Jennifer Chesterton became advisors, investors, and good friends before retiring. Jose Aguilar, now at Monmouth, is another, whose sister Marian now works for us in Singapore. We can also never forget tragedy, such as the bitter loss of my friend and twice serving employee Grant Rattray, whose loss accompanies me every day.”
From Hurst’s point of view, it was the people within Mercanta that made the business what it was, above all else.
“From our longest serving staff, to my wife Alda Maria who forever is looking after Mercanta's best interests, to Michaela who joined our team most recently. Mercanta really is the sum of its parts. We are 23 people on four different continents, working in seven offices importing specialty coffee from 20 countries and selling it in 45. I would not say that is bad going at all!”
Having got through to the 25-year mark, Hurst is confident that there will be many more years of success after the business secured enough investment to survive for decades to come.
Hurst said: “Investment from ECOM Agroindustrial will ensure that Mercanta survives long after my time. The essence and DNA of the business has prospered through many ages and many challenges, with the Year 2000 problem, global financial crisis, Brexit and Covid-19 pandemic just some of the many hurdles we have faced.
“It would be fair to say I have put everything into the business, including my home, which was collateral for Mercanta’s financing for a long time in the early days of the business. Although Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown still hangs over today’s business birthday, I fully intend to celebrate with due honour in good time.”
Mercanta has certainly developed a reputation for hearty celebration upon business milestones, with the tenth and 20th anniversary celebrations of the business taking place in Bern and Dublin, respectively, in 2006 and 2016.
Hurst added: “Anyone who attended those events or has been to any Mercanta Christmas Party, or even my own 50th birthday, will know that I do know how to put on a party! I have every intention of making Mercanta’s 25th anniversary the most memorable of all, even if we have to put it back a year.”
Paying tribute once more to everyone who had had a hand in making Mercanta the business it is today, Hurst concluded: “I would like to express thanks to everyone who has helped Mercanta reach this point, be they staff past or present, investors, suppliers or customers. I will maintain my no alcohol vigil of February and March effective for the past eight years, and so the champagne and celebrations will wait, but March 15, 2021, is not just another day.”