Cablevey Conveyor’s rise in the coffee equipment industry

Legend has it that some of the best inventions were discovered by accident. The microwave oven was supposed to be a vacuum tube. Fireworks were a cook’s recipe gone wrong. Coca-cola was at first a medicine for headaches.  It’s no legend, however, that the Cablevey system – now one of the most popularly used tubular conveyor systems in the coffee industry – didn’t see a coffee bean for its first few decades of use. The company Intraco was founded in December 1971 as an import/export company for agricultural equipment. In 1974, the company decided to manufacture and market its own line of feed conveying equipment, under the trade name Cablevey. As Cablevey’s Marketing Manager Karl Seidel describes, as a feed conveyor, the system was designed to carefully transport prepared animal food. Because the feed was mixed to deliver the right balance of minerals and vitamins, it had to be carefully transported not to disturb the distribution. “Many of these farmers would have used an auger system to transport the feed. But what happens with an auger? The heavier minerals tend to fall back,” Seidel explains. “It compromised the blend. With the Cablevey system, you have an unclosed tube that you’re moving, so you get the same product and consistency from Point A to Point B.” And so it was that Cablevey’s early years, under the leadership of Ben Hall, thrived with a strong consumer base of small farmers. The company hit a crisis point, however, in the 1980s with its fate so closely tied to these small American farmers. The United States underwent a policy change under the Presidency of Richard Nixon, with the appointment of Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture. With a greater focus on farming efficiency, Butz famously told farmers to plant corn “from fencerow to fencerow”. Those policies coincided with the rise of major agribusiness in the United States, and the sad decline of the small family farm. “Things changed,” says Seidel. “We know now how that story went. Small farmers were thrown out of the business. We [at Cablevey] had based ourselves on these small equipment sales to individuals farmers. So Cablevey lost out as well.” The company struggled into the 1990s, when Hall’s sons Phil and Gary took over the business. The original founders had died, and the next generation had to find a way to keep the business moving forward. “They couldn’t keep pounding on farmers doors,” says Seidel. “They had to figure out what to do next. As it turns out, we just had the wrong market.”
Looking back, Seidel says it was a “stroke of fate” that a customer came up with the idea to try and move coffee. The Bong Brothers Coffee Company out of Hawaii, who worked with both green and roasted Kona coffee, were one of the first coffee roasters to experiment with the Cablevey system.
The results were successful beyond anyone’s imagination. The natural oils that build up in coffee acted as a natural lubrication for the discs. Most importantly, the system that had been designed to carefully not over-mix the livestock feed, handled the coffee so gently that it resulted in virtually no breakage, something unheard of at the time in the industry. From that lucky initial trial, the business has grown exponentially. To be able to eliminate breakage in the roasting and packaging process, Seidel points out, translates directly into less wastage and more profits. “We know from our experience now in working with roasters, and having been adopted by some of the biggest players, when you’re roasting on that level, to even have 1 to 2 per cent breakage is a big deal,” he says.   In addition to reducing breakage, Cablevey’s closed system offers remarkable advantages in moving both whole and ground coffee. With many roasting companies offering Organic Certified, Fairtrade Certified, and decaffeinated coffee under different labels – produced all on the same line – limiting cross contamination has proven key in ensuring traceability. The enclosed system offers protection from any foreign materials entering the system. These advantages have translated into this American-made conveyor system gaining an increasing market share, with major coffee players the world over taking up the Cablevey system. “Then around 2000 to 2001, people started to ask, ‘If you can move coffee with that, what else can you move?’” recounts Seidel. “Then they started using Cablevey with breakfast cereal, peanuts, cashews, and so on. We’re looking at really fragile products here. Because of the high value of these commodities, any breakage translates directly into a loss of income.”   With so many new potential customers, Seidel says he’s seen their business increase by at least 400 per cent in the last six years alone. “It’s not by chance that we’ve quadrupled the business,” he says. Seidel can’t help but hide his shock when discussing the auger systems they still come across, and are constantly replacing. Those systems – that weren’t good enough to transport livestock feed – are being used still by many coffee companies to transport their delicate roasted beans. “If you think about an auger, by definition it’s a screw. You’re circulating your product with a screw, you’re going to get breakage. You just can’t get away from that,” he says. “These systems are not designed to move fragile objects.” Seidel says he’s seen breakage rates drop by as much as 78 per cent with the Cablevey system. Naturally, with such a successful system, some competition has crept up attempting to duplicate their technology. Seidel says their tradition of continual change and timely improvement by listening to their customers needs, as well as their background in person-to-person sales, has helped them maintain market dominance. “You’re talking to guys who live and breathe this,” he says. “Time and again, we’ve had people come to us after making a bad decision. Because, what happens when something goes wrong? When you’re operating 24-hour facilities? We’ve got guys here who are dedicated to figure it out.” And so it is that while Cablevey may have strayed away from its mid-west farmer consumer base, Seidel says the staff have remained true to the traditions that were the foundation for their success. And the United States can add one more incidental invention to its list. GCR

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