Nuova Simonelli’s Cosimo Libardo on when tradition meets technology

Try and introduce Nuova Simonelli’s Managing Director Cosimo Libardo to anyone remotely related to the World Barista Championship (WBC), and you’ll elicit a laugh. There are few people in this space he doesn’t know. The company is drawing to a close a three-year sponsorship deal with the international competitions that see the world’s best baristas go head-to-head and Libardo has become a staple at these events. Nuova Simonelli’s partnership with the international competition scene is just a piece of the strategic pie the espresso manufacturing company has undertaken since undergoing a major directional change nearly a decade ago.    To understand the changes the company has achieved, it helps to look at a history that stretches back 75 years, when the business’s namesake, Mr. Simonelli, started the small company that manufactured a few machines every year. Up until the late 1960s, Nuova Simonelli had a very regional focus, concentrated in the central market in Italy. When he passed away, three of the employees made an offer to the family and formally took over in 1971. Forty years on, those three have maintained ownership of the company to this day and continue to play a guiding role.  On taking over the company, they adopted a typical management model, with one concentrating on sales, another administration and a third on production. That take-over was vital in the subsequent decision to take an international focus. Their reach in Italy, Libardo notes, was limited and they saw the best opportunity for growth internationally. “In Italy, the market is done in packets,” he explains. “Depending on where you go in the city, you’ll find certain brands of machines.” With something like 800 brands of coffee in Italy, Libardo says that these companies have adopted aggressive strategies to hold onto clients. These usually involve providing free coffee machines and as such, espresso machines are strongly linked with coffee brands. While Nuova Simonelli’s initial international operations were limited to European borders, in the late 1980s as espresso became popular in the United States, Canada, and Europe, they spread their global wings. It was also at this time that they started looking at making their first trips to Asia. The directions they took were mainly guided by interest expressed at trade shows. “At that time, trade shows were the main way to market a product,” Libardo says. “We could get a good feeling for a potential market by counting the number of visitors we got from that country.” Often, the interest from different countries followed a wave of Italian immigration, where espresso followed suit. Throughout the end of the 20th Century, Nuova Simonelli expanded its operations and is currently present in 112 countries worldwide. As previously mentioned, however one of Nuova Simonelli’s most marked changes was in 2000, when they reviewed their vision. The review led to a new philosophy that was not just about craftsmanship, but about delivering technology that allows any operator to serve a better cup. “We wanted a bad barista to make an average cup of coffee, an average barista to make a good cup, and a good barista to make a great cup,” Libardo says. “As well, that machine had to be reliable as well as affordable. We’re not a boutique company, but we know what we can deliver in a cup – and that’s the best shots in the espresso market.” With this approach in mind, the company devised a strategy to maximise the price to quality ratio. At the time, Libardo says the market had been traditionally viewed as a pyramid and Nuova Simonelli was targeting the middle. The change of strategy, however, recognised the market more in an hourglass shape, with strong markets at the top and bottom end – and Nuova Simonelli was now aiming at the top. In such a traditional industry, the company opted for a more modern path and took a technological direction. They partnered with universities to conduct scientific analysis of the espresso extraction process. “There were few businesses out there with scientific data to back up their claims,” says Libardo. “Most improvements were based on data-free observations. There was no empirical evidence. If you want to reproduce a phenomenon, however, you need to see what’s behind it.” To put themselves in the best position to gather information, the company decided to place themselves as a strategic hub of information, between universities, the media, distributors and other relevant parties. Nuova Simonelli’s sponsorship of the WBC was part of this strategy. The move was less about promoting their brand, and more of a way to put them in touch with the best the coffee industry has to offer. In getting in touch with the world’s top baristas, the company is looking to match their empirical observations with the scientific data they’ve been gathering from their projects with universities. The company recently hosted WBC participants to help them test out their new machines. “The WBC sponsorship has been vital in helping us develop new products – it was not just a marketing strategy,” Libardo notes. “It allows the best talent to come through, and it helps us accelerate the processes we already place.” Libardo identifies two major segments in the professional espresso machine market. The first is what he calls “meditation machines”. These are machines where you need at least 10 minutes to make a good espresso. “You need not be in a rush,” he comments. These are typically used in tasting laboratories, by roasters, and in coffee shops where customers are looking to be entertained. In many cases, Libardo points out, taking 10 minutes to make an espresso shot is a luxury. The economic reality is that these shops need to stay afloat, and to do so they have to sell as many cups of coffee as they can, and they need to be quick.   “The technology needs to be as simple as possible, so that the barista can work as quickly as possible without the quality constantly moving up and down,” he says. “Baristas tell us constantly that what they want is equipment that will standardise the coffee experience for every customer.” Most recently, Nuova Simonelli has brought together these demands along with their scientific approach in the Aurelia, the official espresso machine for the WBC during their three years of sponsorship, from 2009 to 2011. The machine is the result of four different scientific research projects and it was developed using mathematical models specifically designed to improve the thermal stability and performance. The scientifically-designed brew group allows the technician to customise the degree of pre-infusion, brew temperature and flow rate individually for different coffees. In addition to technical innovations inside the machine, the barista’s interaction with the machine was also an area the company wanted to improve. Following the philosophy to maximise the quality of each cup and standardise the experience, ensuring baristas could easily interact with the machine was of paramount importance. “If we make the interface with the operator easier, then that makes the product better,” notes Libardo. As such, the Aurelia is also the only machine in the world certified as ergonomic by the European Institute of Psychology and Ergonomics, ­with ­­push-pull steam levers, wide-angle visual field, exposed group head, soft-touch silicon buttons and smooth locking portafilters. “These advancements, they are coming from science instead of just anecdotal evidence,” says Libardo. “Our goal as a company is that we may not be the first to introduce something, but if we do introduce something we need to know why it’s there and how it interacts with the product.” The strategy, appears to be working. In 2008, the company experienced its best year to date. When the Global Financial Crisis struck in 2009, those figures dropped by 15 per cent. In 2010, however, revenue bounced back by 38.5 per cent, improving on the two years prior and resulting in their best numbers to date. As a manufacturing company, supporting this growth has not been easy and has meant the increased deployment of sales and support staff. In the Unites States alone, Libardo notes, they probably have around 40,000 units in operation with 16 employees based in the United States. Having sales staff abroad, is paramount to their operations, as their sales model is based on personal interaction. Libardo remembers being told how video conferencing would cut down their need to travel, but he’s never accepted it and regularly sends out his staff, and travels himself, to ensure they have a personal presence in whatever market they operate in. “The key word here is trust. Although it’s a business relationship, it can’t be one based on convenience, that’s a short-term relationship,” Libardo says. “When you have that trust, then you don’t have to worry as much about your competition coming in. It’s more of a partnership approach.” The challenge, Libardo notes, is that you need to have a sales force bigger than the business might justify; for Nuova Simonelli it can be a challenge to find sales staff as they will only work with people who are fully capable on the machines. For instance, all of their sales staff are coffee tasters and regularly undergo certification to ensure they stay on top. Once again, quality of service takes precedence over everything else.
As Nuova Simonelli continues to gain market share, the company will likely continue to work hard to keep up with their demand, but as Libardo notes, “It’s a nice problem to have.” Nuova fact
Nuova Simonelli is drawing to a close a three-year long ­sponsorship of the World ­Barista Championships, where the ­Aurelia machine has ­welcomed the skills of the world’s top ­baristas competing for WBC title. Ergo fact
Nuova Simonelli’s Aurelia espresso machine is the only espresso machine in the world certified as ergonomic by the European institute of Psychology and Ergonomics.

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