The Pact Coffee Story: A Team On A Mission

Pact Coffee’s obsession with quality is the driving force behind every inch of its business. It’s a great example of how a powerful sense of mission gives organisations an immediate competitive advantage…

Do you have a strong sense of mission at work? Can you define it succinctly? If so, does it fire you up? These questions are becoming more and more important for businesses who want to do things differently. Jo Fairley, creator of Green & Black’s, recently explained to us how she believes that “brands with soul” – built to achieve something bigger than just selling things and growing for the sake of it – are increasingly acting as magnets for both talented workers and passionate customers [see Jo’s article here]. London-based Pact Coffee is the sort of business Jo was talking about. It’s a company with a profound sense of mission stretching far beyond traditional commercial targets.

The global coffee market is, by any measure, massive, unruly and complex. Many would argue that it has lost its balance – if indeed it had any to begin with. Affluent white-collar middlemen make hay in the sunshine while hardworking farmers are often paid less than it costs to grow beans. And coffee drinkers – particularly in markets where instant dominates – are spoon-fed powders and granules that bear little resemblance to the genuine, fresh coffee that was so conscientiously produced.

Pact Coffee’s mission is to create a healthy new model that results in two things: UK drinkers savouring exceptionally fresh coffee and farmers being paid what they so richly deserve. By giving coffee growers a uniquely high wage (“considerably more than Fairtrade,” they say), bean quality rises, argues Pact. The company can then turn these beans into “the world’s best coffee” – a superlative description that they don’t use lightly, and one which is based on their unrivalled production process. This process is their uniquely distinctive ‘pact’: to connect growers with coffee drinkers via a sustainable new model. And this brilliant idea fuels the powerful sense of mission that drives Pact Coffee’s 42-strong team.

But there’s another challenge too. When it comes to coffee, some Brits are less discerning than a drunk in a kebab shop at 2am. If you’re one of the UK’s growing number of coffee aficionados, you will not appreciate this comparison, but the stats don’t lie: the UK remains one of the world’s biggest markets for instant. So Pact has another mission on its hands: to convert drinkers of what they call “substandard supermarket coffee” to lovers of the real thing. Many UK coffee outfits try to do the same, but Pact’s efforts to rewrite the rulebook by forming a new, symbiotic relationship with coffee farmers, plus its use of impressively scientific production methods, make it stand out.

Let’s consider Pact’s supplier-payment model first. “We pay, minimum, 25% more than Fairtrade; maximum four times more,” says Pact’s Head of Coffee, Will Corby. “By doing this, we source better-quality beans and, because the producers are sustainable, they can reinvest in their farms.” Will gives the example of a Columbian farmer who has supplied Pact for four years and so been able to buy better, larger bean-drying beds, thereby transforming his business. But Pact’s Head of Coffee is keen to point out that the feel-good, ethical part of this story – pleasing as it is – plays second fiddle to logic. “We’re simply paying him and the other farmers what their beans are worth,” he says. “By doing that, we’re creating a lasting relationship and ultimately boosting our coffee quality. That’s what our pricing model is about – protecting quality. It allows the farmer to optimise his or her beans.”

Great in theory, you might think, but how can Pact do this and still be profitable? MD Paul Turton has the answer: “We can pay up to four times more for our beans than Fairtrade because of coffee’s convoluted supply chain. We cut out the middlemen.Traditionally, the packager or supermarket usually buys from a roaster, who buys from an importer or commodity trader, who buys from an exporter, who buys from a mill. The mill buys from a farmer. It’s a hugely complicated chain. At Pact, we negotiate face-to-face with the farmer while sitting at the table with the miller, so we get complete cost transparency. The money we’re paying goes to the farmer. We don’t lose margin in the middle, so we stay profitable.”
Once the beans are in the warehouse, Pact Coffee’s mission is to create the world’s best coffee beans via a uniquely scientific production process. “We have the most technologically advanced coffee roaster in the world,” says Will. “Most roasters are based on a 1950s European design, but ours was designed in the 2000s in California. It works differently, using convection heating. Therefore we avoid burning reactions and we maintain all the flavours.”

This Rolls Royce of a roaster is controlled by software that gives Pact extraordinary control. Will, a former engineer, says: “We measure moisture content, bean density and size, we put that information alongside country of origin and altitude, and we then compare it against every other coffee we’ve roasted. We optimise each roast accordingly, tasting every bag as we go. So we’ll roast one bag, taste it, talk about how to make it better, and then optimise the roast profile over and over again. This constant refining ensures that the coffee going out the door is always better than it was yesterday.”

Next comes the grind (although Pact sells whole-bean coffee too), and there’s more to this than you might think. “To make the best cup, you need the correct particle size for your brewing method,” explains Will. “Get that wrong and you’ll get either too much bitterness, or too much astringency. Ground supermarket coffee tends to have a wide particle spread to try to even everything out but here at Pact we simply ask customers how they brew and we then supply the right size for that method.”

Alongside roast and grind optimisation, Pact’s third production priority – and perhaps the most important – is bean freshness. Will explains: “One of our founding principles is that coffee is a fresh-food item,” he says. “It should be sold in the fruit and vegetable section, not with the dry stuff, where all those delicious flavours are lost. So we always ship coffee within seven days of it being roasted – in many cases, the very next day after roasting. That has a big impact on quality.”

Pact Coffee’s obsession with coffee freshness is appropriate because the company is bringing youthful vigour, common sense and inspirational ambition to a supply chain that’s become stale, unhealthy and dysfunctional. The mission is clear: pay farmers well, get better beans, roast world-class coffee, and convert UK consumers. It’s a big, brave mission and one that makes perfect sense – which is why it fires up Pact Coffee’s team, suppliers and customers so much. And with motivation this strong and the world’s finest caffeine, who’s going to stop them?