Coffee Planet Managing Director Jamie Brown on the importance of building company culture, exploring new markets, and growing in line with the Middle East’s strong demand for specialty coffee.
Aspiring actors travel to Los Angeles for their big break, while musicians make their fortune in New York, but for British-born Jamie Brown, it was Dubai’s melting pot of culture and creativity that he craved.
“Moving to the Middle East had been something I wanted to do for about 15 years. Dubai in particular is such a unique place. There are so many people here of different cultures and nationalities. People are still coming in, bringing their experiences from their home country, and wanting to create a home here. There is a rich blend of differences, and that’s what makes it an exciting destination,” Brown tells Global Coffee Report.
Brown had actively watched the progression of up-and-coming roaster Coffee Planet via social media platforms and despite it being a smaller organisation than the companies he had previously worked for – Mars Incorporated, Selecta, and Lavazza Professional – he was attracted to its potential.
“Each company I’ve worked for has taught me values and ethics on how to make decisions as an organisation based on people principles,” Brown says.
“Even during my time in the British Army, one of the key lessons I took from the military into the corporate world, is the value of professionalism. [The Army] is all about teamwork and it’s the same in business. No one person can change the trajectory of the company. Everyone plays a part. People are the most important part of your business.”
Brown had a successful meeting with Coffee Planet’s Chairman at the start of 2020 in Cardiff, the United Kingdom. Wheels were set in motion to move to the company’s head office in Dubai until the global pandemic put those plans on pause. Brown finally made his long-time dream a reality at the start of 2022.
“COVID happened but it didn’t dampen my desire to join the business,” he says. “I looked at the company nearly three years ago to understand what Coffee Planet is and what it can do, and I look at it today and still see huge amounts of potential for where this business can go.”
Coffee Planet launched in 2005 on the Arabian Peninsula at a time when the local coffee landscape looked very different to how it does today. Brown described its offering as “specialty coffee on-the-go to customers on their journey to-and-from work”, via convenience stores and contracts with two of the United Arab Emirate’s largest petrol station companies. The business grew, as did its volume, but a realisation also occurred – “it was running the risk of having all its eggs in one basket”.
“As a business we needed to diversify and bring in modern new channels to embrace a diversifying and digital world with changing expectations of customer experience. While we now have a footprint in multiple channels, I still see us as having quite a light penetration across the board. My goal is to build depth in each of the eight channels we operate across,” Brown says.
The channels include convenience stores, food service, office coffee supply, hotels, retail, international distribution, Coffee Planet coffee shop franchising, and at the heart of the business, its roasting facility, which has opened to private label partnering. It is capable of producing in excess of 300 tonnes of coffee and three million capsules per month.
“[Coffee Planet has] built a great story already, and there are multiple projects underway, but we have such a huge opportunity,” Brown says.
“We’ve got a great bunch of people and the skill levels we have across our organisation is fantastic. The next steps are about making sure the company has the right systems, processes, structure, and strategy in place to achieve the desired growth.”
COVID forced Coffee Planet to become “lean” through some tough decisions. It kept the talent it could, re-evaluated its strengths, and questioned who it wanted to be as an organisation so that when the time was right, it could “be ready to sprint out of the blocks”.
“When I look at the structure of the business, I look at the team that we have today, and the team we need tomorrow to deliver on the strategy. Then I need to make sure that we’re doing everything efficiently. It’s about continuous improvement. We’re not perfect,” Brown says. “The question is, how do we make ourselves stronger in every area of the business? How can we make every single element that we do better, and improve what we do? We want our customers to enjoy every moment with us. It’s our job to serve that experience perfectly.”
To honour that experience in a sustainable way, Coffee Planet launched its Green Team initiative in 2022, a clear plan for how it tackles environmental issues such as ethical sourcing and waste management. For example, through its most recent partnership with The Waste Lab, Coffee Planet aims to repurpose and compost organic coffee waste by diverting it from landfill where it generates methane gases.
Brown says while he can create the right strategy and structure within the company, and make efficiencies, culture underpins everything the company does.
“Through our growth over the years, we have evolved from being a successful family business to a prominent small and medium-sized enterprise. As we begin to enter the next phase of growth, we need to have the right structures and culture in place otherwise you can get left behind,” Brown says.
Critical to the fabric of Brown’s decision-making are his core pillars, best described as a “pyramid structure” divided into three sections.
The biggest piece of the pyramid is the base level, “talent and engagement”, which Brown believes is the foundation to everything that will help drive the business forward. It is based around investing and developing people and includes open communication, transparency, formal and informal training of staff, and evolving the identity of the organisation.
The middle of the pyramid is split into three areas: standards and expectations of staff, customers and consumers; recognition and reward; and accountability and ownership.
Top of the pillar pyramid, is growth. Put simply, Brown says if all the lower layers of the pyramid can be fulfilled, that’s when Coffee Planet will naturally excel and grow.
“If we get it right, we will deliver growth. We’ve built a great reputation here in the UAE and wider region, so now I am also looking at where else can we benefit from replicating our business model into other markets, and potentially roast in the markets where we already distribute and have a strong presence and reputation,” Brown says, noting Saudi Arabia’s “huge market potential” in line with its Vision 2030 strategic framework.
Strength in numbers
A focus area for Coffee Planet is the growth of its franchise operations. In the UAE, Coffee Planet franchise stores have grown over the past few years in partnership with Dash Hospitality Group. Key partners in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the UK, and Egypt will contribute to further growth plans with more potential franchise partners poised to bring Coffee Planet to their shores.
“Our franchise coffee shops are a window to the business. It’s a selling tool. If we get it right, it then opens us up for distribution of products to hotels, food service and retail in different markets,” Brown says.
Coffee Planet’s ideal customer, quite simply, is a repeat customer, someone who wants to try the product again and again. If that can be achieved, Brown says he’ll know he’s on the right path.
“The build-up to 2019 was consistent growth each year throughout our history and 2019 was our strongest year ever. Then we got hit by COVID. I started  thinking ‘let’s get back to 2019 figures’. I am excited to share that we finished 2022 as our strongest year ever. While this gives me encouragement, I’m already looking ahead at 2023 and beyond,” he says.
Brown credits UAE’s strong recovery from COVID and rising visitor numbers, which he says went “through the roof” in 2022. “It’s really bounced back as a region and a destination, which is having a positive knock-on effect to our hotels and food service channels,” he says.
Dubai has a rich coffee history dating back around 500 years. The city is saturated with coffee shop options and competitor brands, but the gamechanger, Brown says, has been the introduction of specialty coffee, and the demand for it.
“The coffee shop landscape is changing. While people still see it as cool and trendy to go to certain coffee shops, as time has gone on, people are really understanding and wanting more from their coffee experience. Consumers are expecting to have a great experience, perfect coffee, and exceptional customer service, and this is key to obtaining a repeat customer – my favourite type of customer,” he says.
As such, Coffee Planet has a bi-weekly meeting to discuss new product development and question how it can retain, grow, and attract new customers.
Because of Dubai’s growing reputation, Brown says there is also growing interest from international brands wanting to enter the region, such as those in the United States, UK, and Australia. Many are looking to set-up or build upon their presence in the UAE and are doing so through Coffee Planet’s private label business, and the support of its local roasting facilities.
“This is a very fast-growing part of our business,” Brown says. “[Businesses] see the quality of what we produce with our own brand and put their trust in us to make sure we produce it to the same high level for their brand, and in line with their needs.”
To date, Coffee Planet produces private label coffee and consumables for more than 20 international and local clients across 59 countries, and sources coffee from more than 23 countries. It processes more than 1500 tonnes of private label coffee sales annually.
While Brown alludes to the company’s “light footprint” in multiple channels, it’s here in the private label sector he sees depth to what the company does.
“If we get the right strategy and partners in place, and our core pillars right, I’m confident our business could double, if not triple in size in the next few years. I really do believe that,” he says.
Set to soar
January 2023 marks Brown’s one-year anniversary in his role as Coffee Planet Managing Director, and he’s still smiling. He acknowledges there’s still lots to do, but what’s important, is that Coffee Planet now has the foundation to support the business in achieving its next steps of growth.
“I am confident about the opportunity here with the business as I was three years ago when I first had a conversation with my team about what we could do together,” Brown says. “I think as a region, not even as a business, we’re scratching the surface of where we can go, and it’s super exciting to see where it’s heading.”
This article was first published in the January/February 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.