Interview with Wim Abbing, President and CEO of Probat and Current NCA Board Member — Part II

Mike Vilarino, Business Integration Manager with Baronet Coffee, continues his conversation with Wim Abbing, President and CEO of Probat. Probat is a multinational coffee equipment manufacturer headquartered in Emmerich, Germany. In case you missed Part I of Mike’s interview with Wim, be sure to check it out here!

Vilarino: Things must’ve really changed since you began in coffee. In what ways has the business changed since you started.

Abbing: There has been so much change since I entered the business two decades ago. What I sensed in the ‘90s was that coffee was just warm brown “stuff.” I always give Starbucks a lot of credit; they really expanded our perception of coffee beyond that of habit. With that, the industry evolved to how it is today, where consumers have so many options, something that I didn’t feel was present in the 90s.

I always hear, ‘Your company is 150 years old, and you build roasters that last 40 to 50+ years, why are you still selling roasters? There MUST be enough roasters in the world to roast all the coffee?’ What I always say to that is this: for Probat it is important that coffee habits change. As habits evolve, customers need new roasters, new controls, and new technology. All those things are crucial to our industry but especially to Probat. We are seeing those shifts now, continuing throughout the pandemic.

You mention the pandemic, what has that been like as the leader of Probat? How have you navigated these unprecedented times?

Abbing: I was in China in January 2020 and came home sick. My wife thinks that I had Covid-19 in Jan 2020!

My last business trip before the pandemic was the NCA Convention and at that time things were starting to feel different. When I got back to Germany, I had a meeting with my management team to discuss what our next steps would be. We sent everyone home, started shift work (something we had never done), and reduced the density of people that were working in person.

To be honest, throughout this time, we either had to try something new or go out of business. And at the end of the day, it ended up working out pretty well. Of course, the first few weeks and months were a bit shaky, but things ended up stabilizing. Only 150 out of the nearly 500 people in Emmerich were required to be in person. The rest were engineers who can work remotely. We are lucky that we had that type of flexibility.

Our biggest challenge during this time, however, was managing our service network. We are a company with customers all over the world, which proved difficult to manage during a time when travel was restricted. We decided to take a couple different approaches. First, we hired regionally-based service engineers. That gave us the ability to continue to service our customers while minimizing travel for the team. Second, we utilized technology to assist us with installations. Our in-person staff would wear a camera while speaking with a remote engineer who would be giving them live step-by-step instructions as the remote engineer was able to see exactly what our in-person technician was seeing. Essentially, we did things we never thought we would have needed to do.

While we seem to be finally moving on from the pandemic, there is another crisis at the forefront of European minds. How are you dealing with the gas crisis and the unrest in Eastern Europe?

Abbing: If you’re a CEO you must be optimistic. What is happening right now is, however, a bit frightening. On the business side, we wrote our processes to account for the scenario where we were out of gas and power. At Probat, everyone knows what the contingency plans are if they need to be executed.

Tensions are escalating in Europe, which makes you realize how fragile of a time it is.

We all hope that this is not coming but we are prepared if it does.

Switching gears, when did you become involved in the NCA? What is your current involvement?

Abbing: I’m fairly new to the NCA, at least to the NCA Board. I have been attending the NCA conventions for almost 2 decades now. This was one of the first objectives of my time as President at Probat.

I think organizations like the NCA are necessary for what I would consider a fragmented industry. We have so many small and medium-sized companies! And because of that, the research in coffee falls behind that of other industries. In order for the coffee industry to grow and develop, we need associations like the NCA to bring together all small, medium, and large-scale businesses. The NCA does a great job of doing just that.

Did you have any mentors starting out in the business?

Abbing: I would’ve loved to, but no, I didn’t! While I might not have had an active mentor, there are several people in coffee that made a sizable impression on me. Mr. Nabeiro of Delta Coffee in Portugal, for example, is 91 and still involved in the business! He is such an amazing person; he built an educational center about coffee in his village, and I admire him deeply.

Outside of him, we really have so many great people in coffee. I could keep going, but Mr. Nabiero is just one of several people that made a lasting impression on me.

What advice would you give yourself that maybe you didn’t get when starting out in the business?

Abbing: Listen more. Don’t be so quick in making decisions!

What advice would you give to the ‘next generation’?

Abbing: Meet as many people as you can! The more diverse the better. I would say, go to Mongolia and learn what they do there! Go to Tanzania and experience how they plant coffee trees!

Another piece of advice I would give to the next generation would be to learn from other players in the industry. And don’t forget, you can learn from people you might not see eye-to-eye with as well. There is a saying in Germany: ‘there is nobody that is so bad that would serve as a bad example.’ For me now, I believe the worst way to run a company is running it from a desk. I try and get out and see people as much as possible, and I implore the younger generation to do the same.

Final question, a little bit of a goofy one. You and 3 open seats at a dinner table, who are you sitting with?

Abbing: I try to understand why people act like they act. Therefore, I would love to sit together with President Trump, Borris Johnson, and Angela Merkel. More political than business right now! Of course, I would love to understand more about Elon Musk and everything he has going on as well.

A different, fun table would include Ru Paul and President Obama. I think that table would be great!

Thank you again to Wim Abbing, President and CEO of Probat, for graciously sharing his thoughts on the industry and advice to the next generation!

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