Jonathan Gabbay (RGC Coffee) recently sat down with John “JD” Demuria, Managing Partner at Volcafe USA and past Chair of the NCA Board of Directors, for a retrospective on his time in the industry and what is in store for future coffee professionals.
How did you get into coffee?
The first 4 years, in the late 70’s, I started in the banking side, which gave me pretty good insight into the commodity sector. I was young and energetic and eager to learn from people. I was doing it from the side of a banker, not a trader, with Volkart Bros, which is known today as Volcafe, and I was able to take advantage of an opening on the trading side. I started in the low end. Not everybody starts in the boardroom, you have to pay your dues and learn and understand the fundamentals in all areas. I was fortunate being able to work with a group that was very much about educating and teaching and starting from the basics.
Starting your career in coffee the industry was different. Young coffee professionals have never experienced a Brazil frost or the ICO quotas that you’ve had to combat. What is the biggest difference in what we’re experiencing as an industry today vs when you were starting out.
The thing that sands out the most is the technology we have. Back in the day, we had a telex operator and long distance phone calls were not reliable. So your telex operator was your most important trader on the desk. Today we talk across the world for free. Back in the day, there would be a frost in Brazil, and we’d know about it a week before the farmers in Brazil even knew about it! Today it’s instantaneous.
We didn’t have volatility like we had today related to macro issues, hedge fund trading, speculative trading, geo-political issues, currencies, climate change along with the supply and demand of coffee itself. In the early days it was flat price, we didn’t work out differentials yet. There wasn’t a big need to hedge like we do today. And we went from simple futures trading to buying underlying futures, options and all the different products out there today.
As a follow up to the above question, what piece of advice would you offer someone starting out in coffee?
I think the most important thing when you start out, no matter your background or education, is to understand that coffee is not a thing you can learn from a textbook. Take advantage of the people who come ahead of you, ask questions, and listen. Take the opportunity to learn. You will eventually get to the same result, but your approach will be different dealing with a different demographic and environment. You’ll have a whole new set of tools to work with but a whole new set of challenges to deal with.
Also relationships. At the beginning, I took the time to get out and network with people. Obviously it’s very different today. But I would encourage anyone to reach out and forge those relationships, they will come back to help you in the longer term.
As the industry has changed, so has the focus of the NCA. What are some of the bigger shifts in focus you’ve seen?
The focus has always been on making sure that we protect and promote the industry. This is an association that is 108 years old. Along the way a lot of changes and adjustments were made. Today we are more relevant than we were in the past and I think what’s important is having the right leadership in place. We’ve always been the voice of the coffee industry, but we lost that voice for a while. I mean that we were always the proactive voice when something would go wrong on the regulatory side, a health scare, or a scientific problem. When someone needed information, they’d come to the NCA. That kind of got lost. Today we are an association that is now leveraging the science behind coffee, and that is the Scientific Advisory Committee. A couple years ago, no one knew they existed, and today they are working on cold brew, prop 65, diacetyl among others. We had a great win with the IARC report. They hadn’t looked at coffee closely since 1992 and we successfully had coffee removed from the list of possible carcinogenic products. That was a great win for the association that has come back to help us with the prop 65 fight in California.
In your opinion, why should young professionals get involved in the NCA and how would they benefit?
Your voice doesn’t get heard if you’re not there. There’s no better way to make a mark in your industry than engagement. You have a voice if you get out and participate. If you are active, your voice will be heard. We all have a common goal to promote coffee and consumption and to try to proactively solve the issues in the industry.
Also being engaged allows people the opportunity to network and hear about other businesses and see how they’re doing. Maybe share some of the problems you have in the industry you have worked on.
The best thing we did as an association is to start the next-gen council, because it gives you that voice and you report to the boardroom. There’s also new projects coming down the road and its super important for us to develop the next wave of leadership in the industry.
As past chairman of the NCA, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
My biggest takeaway when I retired as chairman, was how well the board worked together, how we all moved in the same direction. We all saw things eye to eye, and I think a lot had to do with Bill Murray’s leadership. The way they recognized the problems, gave resources, created the Next-Gen. We had the results of IARC, which needed emergency funding, and raised awareness of the Scientific Advisory Group (as mentioned earlier, they worked on prop 65, IARC, diacetyl, and cold brew standards that were just released).
We wanted to expand our global footprint. We are no longer a North American association, we’re much more than that and operate in a global space. The issues we deal with as an industry are not unique to us, they are global issues. We have to have common voices with other associations and not draw a line in the sand, but work together as a global unit.
Since this interview took place, a lot has changed in the coffee world and abroad with the global Covid-19 pandemic. We revisited this interview and followed up with JD early in 2021 to find out what has changed and how the NCA and his own business has adapted.
In 2021, what can we expect from the NCA and how has the association adapted to this new world?
(Laughs) I think the question is ‘what has not changed?’ Both in our personal and professional lives. We’ve had to learn and adapt on the fly and look for silver linings. With the NCA, we’ve had to keep everyone informed and on the same page. The association is very complex, there’s scientific research, office work, serving membership needs all will defending the needs of the industry in the political and scientific landscape. My hat is off to Bill Murray and the NCA Team for creating resources and toolkits that are extremely useful and keep everyone informed and safe. Each year the Association recruits, sends out info and different opportunities for people to get engaged.
What opportunities have now manifested for young professionals that were not there before Covid?
We can expect the future of the convention to be a hybrid type of event, that will be a combination of in-person and virtual meetings. Professionals can still co-mingle with people with years of experience. There will be new opportunities for new membership to get involved in the Next-Gen (committees) and for the younger generation the chance to attend the main event virtually when they may have not been able to before.
What has saved you in your own business?
What has saved us? Multiple things and they are difficult to prioritize. First, the team I have in place is spectacular. They have made sacrifices and shown dedication, and I’m very proud to say they are extremely young and diverse. Eight or nine are in the millennial category. Diversity helped us adapt to new technology, customer service, given us accessibility 24 hours a day and set up virtual meetings weekly with clients. We’ve adopted peoples’ homes, basements, kitchens. Mancaves became work caves. And we’ve added some extra technology like having multiple screens. A minimal investment has led to a massive benefit.