07 February 2012
Phil Schluter-Social Enterprise
Phil Schluter runs a family coffee business founded in 1858, which specialises in African coffees. The enterprise trades in a socially responsible and ethical manner. Phil grew up in Kenya, did most of his education in the UK, lived in Switzerland for 16 years, and has been in Liverpool since 2009. He is married to Helen, and they have four kids under the age of seven – Luc, Jasmine, Gabriel and Josselin.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always expected that I would be a missionary living in a mud hut in a remote corner of Africa.
How did you become involved in the coffee business?
My uncle offered me a job when I graduated. Having had a fairly easy life up to that point, I thought originally that I would work for a couple of years to get some experience of the 'real world' and understand people who had busy professional careers. I did not expect to stay in it when I started.
Is it an advantage or disadvantage to run a family business set up in 1858?
Like most things in life, it has some good and bad points, but generally good. It is a privilege to inherit a faithful tradition of being a trusted member of the coffee community.
While the long history is a great asset, it is also at times a burden that you don't want to be the generation that messes up and sees the business close. If I pass it on, which I hope I will, to my own kids, both the asset and the burden will be one generation bigger.
What role does faith play in your enterprise?
A central one. It directs primarily the way we try to do business. We seek for a gain where we add value and make a difference. We seek to value the people we work with from our suppliers, to our employees and our buyers. We recognise that - while we need to make a profit to stay in business - money is a resource to be stewarded well, rather than a goal in itself, and can be highly destructive if mismanaged.
What does a socially responsible and ethical coffee trade look like?
It is one in which consumers know where their coffee comes from and in which we are willing to pay a better price for a better product, allowing the growers to benefit from efforts they make to improve their coffee and their lives.
Your company values "tradition, experience, sustained relationship, and cooperation". How does that shape your work?
It shapes what we do in recognising that relationships matter and count for a lot. Business should be done to the benefit of all parties involved - that way it will grow and get stronger. Our experience will hopefully allow us to learn from mistakes of the past, and understand how we can serve our suppliers and buyers better.
What makes you angry?
Your next question! The whole assumption that what we read in the press is right. The huge amount spent on advertising over the years that buying the 'Fair Trade' label is the only way to trade fairly. The fact that some great people doing great things and being successful at it are at times attacked because it is easy to sell newspapers in doing so.
The film 'Black Gold' showed the power of the multinational players that dominate the world's coffee trade. Is the quest for fair pay for the farmers a lost cause?
I know Tadese from this film well, and he is doing a great job promoting Ethiopian coffees. At the same time, the film is very misleading. You pay, say, £2 for a cup of coffee, and the farmer gets 10 or 20 pence. The rest is the real cost of bringing that coffee to you - over 90 per cent is the cost of running a café. So much misinformation is published about the reality of the coffee trade and often by people supposedly with a faith trying to help farmers. That I find depressing.
Has the financial crises affected your trade?
A little. It is more volatile, more risky, and perhaps harder work. However, we sell all over the world and coffee consumption remains fairly steady. We certainly need to be more alert to all the risks of currency moves, futures market moves, liquidity and the financial security of everyone from the banks who finance our business to the brokers who keep our futures positions.
Is it more difficult to be virtuous in a time of recession?
Almost the opposite. I think that the recession is a great reminder that the best things in life are free, and that the consumerism which so easily overtakes us all is based on a promise of satisfaction that it can never deliver.
What is your dream for society?
What is your least and most green credential?
I live close to work (quite green), but drive most days (not so green).
Tell us a joke
Who was the best businessman in the Bible? Noah - he floated his stock whilst the rest of the world was in liquidation. And the best businesswoman? Pharaoh's daughter who went to the Bank of the Nile and drew out a little prophet.