Espresso House Group CEO on the next phase of evolution

Espresso House Group

Espresso House Group CEO Anssi Thureson on strategic growth, the importance of staff satisfaction, and why first impressions always count.

While few CEOs would understand the labour and knowledge required to uphold the standards set to employees, each quarter Espresso House Group CEO Anssi Thureson visits one of the company’s designated coffee shops to immerse himself behind the coffee machine.

“The leadership team make important decisions, but we also need to understand the effect of our operations and decision-making,” Thureson tells Global Coffee Report. “We call it ‘out of office Friday’. You learn so much from the experience. It’s a great way to meet colleagues, connect with our guests directly, listen to their needs, and understand what they want.” After a long career working in the retail and grocery market in Finland, Thureson applied for an interview with Swedish-born Espresso House, not having heard of the company.

“Two hours before the interview in Stockholm, I decided to visit a few Espresso House shops to get a taste for the brand. I was stressed I wouldn’t be able to find one. All of a sudden, I saw Espresso House coffee shops on every corner,” Thureson says.

“I remember a girl in her early twenties waving to me. She said, ‘god morgon, do you want coffee?’ Her big smile was telling me there was something unique in the feeling and experience of Espresso House. There weren’t too many other people in Stockholm Central Station smiling at seven o’clock in the morning. I was lucky to have such a good first impression of the brand, and it’s the feeling we chase over and over in our business.”

When Thureson was appointed company CEO in May 2022, taking over the position from long-serving employee John Nylén, the former Chief Operating Officer spent his first 100 days travelling and meeting with 330 coffee shop managers.

“I base my leadership on listening. It’s not always about wisdom. It’s really fascinating to work with young people. They really want to express themselves, to be heard, and they are really fast learners,” Thureson says. “After my first 100 days, I realised what an extremely strong culture at Espresso House we have, and what amazing people we have working for us.”

As such, a long-term strategy for Espresso House is to offer competitive salaries to coffee shop employees, which this year will be an investment of around US$8.6 million.

“I want to show appreciation to our people. They are the heart of our business. I see a very strong interrelation between people who feel valued and deliver quality to our guests, and a sustainable business long term,” Thureson says. “When our people grow, our business grows. If they are happy, then we have succeeded in delivering the right work conditions, which we hope develops into a role as a master barista, senior baristas, assistant managers, and other layers of growth. I see so much joy when our people develop.” Approximately 30 per cent of Espresso House office staff have taken the opportunity to invest in the company, which Thureson says is a key driver in company culture and employees’ sense of belonging.

Expanding the Espresso House culture

Espresso House is part of the world’s largest coffee family, JAB Holding BV. When Thureson started work at Espresso House in 2015, the company had 160 shops, mainly across Sweden. He soon discovered that part of his role as country manager would be to share the business with the rest of the world. Espresso House has now grown into one of the leading premium coffee shop brands, operating more than 500 coffee shops across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Germany.

“We work in five different markets with five different languages and currencies. We have done a lot of transformation in our processes and communication to become a more professional company. We have been extremely proud of the fact we operate our shops by ourselves, but the next stage of our growth journey is to give our brand to future partners,” Thureson says.

“It’s a big step. It means that we want to start a franchise operation. We do have some franchise operators in small pockets of the market, but we want to expand that and discover new geographies to grow in the future.”

Espresso House is already negotiating with several partners in Germany, where Thureson says it would be a natural fit to expand its current presence, in addition to Poland, Switzerland, Austria, and one day, Asia.

When Espresso House Founder Charles Asker opened the first Espresso House shop in 1996 in Lund, a small city in the Southern part of Sweden, his ambition, Thureson says, was to operate 100 shops. “People told him it wouldn’t happen, that it was already a lot to handle just one shop. But as of last year, Espresso House broke a great milestone – 500 shops. Of course, the next milestone is to hit 1000 shops,” he says.

“We know we can achieve that goal if we grow at a fast pace with our franchise partners and continue our organic growth. I also believe our unique Nordic values of being humble and sustainable, have allowed the company in the past few months, to focus more on becoming better instead of becoming bigger.” Thureson acknowledges the challenge will be “scattered” competition from other coffee chains and many boutique roasters in the Nordic region. However, in the German market already, Espresso House’s newest addition, results have been “exceptionally good”.

“There are not too many players that offer what makes us unique – specialty coffee and baked goods from our premium quality bakery in Arlöv [just outside Malmö in Sweden]. Not too many companies have succeeded in combing these two elements. You either succeed with one or the other, but we have both,” Thureson says.

“Entering a new market is like education, you start small and grow steadily. We conduct a thorough food analysis to see what assortment of products will work well. The breakfast behaviour in the Nordics is quite unique, with focaccias and bagels, but in Germany, they love their salty pretzel in the morning with a good coffee, so of course we need to fulfil their needs.”

Espresso House’s cinnamon roll is its top seller, even in Germany. Thureson notes the company still uses Founder Charles’ grandmother’s old mud cake recipe. “That’s one recipe we probably won’t touch,” he says.

Traditions and triumphs

Aiding the growth of Espresso House is the company’s committing to the digital space, which it has pioneered since 2014 with the launch of its My Espresso House loyalty program.

In Sweden, Thureson says almost half of customers pay for their order via the Espresso House app or by using its digital loyalty program. He says the digital transformation was counter- intuitive of the COVID era, whereby the company had already educated its customers to use contactless payment.

Espresso House’s latest innovation, at one- and-a-half years in the making, is a subscription model that enables customers to make monthly payments, “just like a streaming subscription”. For Espresso House employees, in addition to an internal Espresso House Academy, a digital training platform is used to maintain consistency across all markets. A digital Barista Pulse system also encourages staff to rate their shift with different versions of smiling emojis. For instance, if a barista rates their shift as stressful because they were understaffed on a busy Saturday, the company can monitor operations and implement better planning.

“It’s important that we are a flat organisation so that people feel we are doing this together. It also gives the leadership team strong access to our people and a direct form of communication,” Thureson says.

“I believe that when we are connected with our people, and everybody knows the purpose and meaning of Espresso House, then we can create a fantastic and fun business.”

Part of that ethos includes a sustainable roadmap. In 2021, Espresso House started mapping its carbon footprint according to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. This year, it aims to work towards setting science-based emission reduction targets in line with the Science Based Target Initiative’s recommendations and criteria. “We are proud of our long-standing producer relationships of 20 to 25 years. We have full transparency from bean to cup, and we understand that a company of our size needs to invest in certifications,” Thureson says.

In 2021, Espresso House bought coffee from 10 different countries, and brewed more than nine million cups of specially graded coffee.

All of Espresso House’s coffee is roasted in its Länna-based factory, just outside Sweden’s capital of Stockholm, where it produces 800 tonnes of coffee annually. Thureson says the volume is attributed to its growth in multi-channels and distribution of products to grocers and on-demand coffee stations. In 2022, Espresso House exceeded pre-COVID 2019 sales figures by 15 to 20 per cent. It also won the Allegra Award 2022 for Best Coffee Chain in the Nordic Region.

Also on the rise is Espresso House’s 43 converted coffee shops, formerly of Balzac Coffee which it acquired in 2017. The transformation has resulted in a 20 to 30 per cent sales increase.

To see the results for himself, Thureson tells Global Coffee Report his next ‘out of office Friday’ is booked for March.

“I’m not the world’s best latte artist, but I can pour a heart, or a tulip,” he says. “We have t-shirts that say: ‘Sorry if I can’t get up to speed because we’re out of office.’ We really do try to be as humble as possible and bring a great energy to the team. Hopefully our colleagues won’t be scared by having their boss jump behind the coffee machine.”

This article was first published in the March/April 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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