By Jennifer Pruess, Demo & DSD, Equal Exchange
Welcome the second edition to the Equal Exchange Out West series! In early August, I sat down with Wells Neal, current Director of Equal Exchange West. We had a thorough discussion about his beginnings with Equal Exchange, his journey out west, struggles we’ve overcome along the way and ones we face as we peer into the future. One highlight is hearing how the elevator at our old Portland warehouse is now a coffee shop (Elevator Cafe & Commons), one that no longer moves, but can still be found right in the middle of our lively Portland coffee scene.
Wells, you started in the East, correct? Walk me through how you came to work with Equal Exchange.
Took me three applications. I applied for three separate positions over a period of a couple of years. I met Rink and Rob at an SCAA event in Florida. I had become aware of Equal Exchange and the fact that they were it in fair trade coffee in like 1999 when I was working for a privately held coffee roaster in upstate New York It was a great organization, but we didn’t do fair trade coffee. I was head of Sales, I tried to convince the owner (by saying): “Hey, we gotta do this fair trade thing. It’s really cool.”
I went to this event that Equal Exchange was doing in Boston at the Boston Common, there was all this activity, I had no clue what was going on. There were people speaking and it seemed like really interesting energy and I just kind of got an elixir, it was like, this is really great stuff. It’s all about farmers, it’s all about sourcing, this is cool. We were typically buying through a broker at our coffee company. I could never convince anybody in my company that it was cool, but that’s another story.
I wound up meeting Rink and Rob at a dinner and we ended up sitting down together with a bunch of people. I got to know them a little bit. So, I applied for a couple of jobs, it didn’t work out because I didn’t want to leave Syracuse. Then I got the job as National Sales Manager and my wife agreed that I could commute to Boston. I would go early Monday morning, drive the six hours, 333 miles, to get to work by 9:30, leave at one o’clock Friday afternoon, drive home for the weekend. I did that for a little over three years.
Wow, that’s quite the schedule!
A committed participant! A side note is that it almost didn’t work out because I didn’t understand Equal Exchange culture. I thought I would, I did not, it wasn’t working, that’s a separate story. We wound up working things out so my job kind of shifted away from being National Sales Manager. One of my direct reports was Tom Wilde who was out west (West Sales Manager based in Oregon). I was his supervisor from the day I was hired so I was always thinking about the west. I would visit the team and try to understand the west more. I have been connected with the west since 2006 and that’s when we started building the team.
And so you were on the hiring committees then?
Oh yes, I mean, we were growing. I was helping Tom think about how we grow in the west, that was just part of my work. You know, when we started, the first budget Tom and I did together was for 4.5 million dollars for the west. They hadn’t hit that goal the year before, that had been the prior year’s sale goal, we hadn’t hit it and we were very nervous. We said: “Well, let’s try to hit it this year.” And I don’t want to say with any deeper thinking than that, but right now, we’re probably up to 15 million.
So, that was scary and we managed to come through. I was scared to death, but at any rate, that was our first goal and we had a very small team back then. When I came on, they were in Hood River. Fast-forward to the team is growing, I’m putting more time, effort, and energy into the west, I suggest to Rink that I should move out here.
You also had other responsibilities at that time, correct?
We had been shifting responsibilities, but regardless, I was still visiting the west and only going into West Bridgewater a couple of times a month. We also knew that we were outgrowing Hood River, so we formed a committee and decided to get a bigger space. Ultimately, we moved to 1033 SE Main in 2010.
So, we weren’t at that location for that long then.
We were there for like three years and we outgrew it. So we had a very nice landlord and we knew we needed something bigger, our chocolate room needed remodeling.
Ha, yes, I remember our chocolate room.
When we first started receiving chocolate in the west, we would get it on a 52-foot cold trailer. The trailer couldn’t get in to our dock because there was no ability to back up a truck that big in to our yard. So, the truck would park on the street (I think I still have movies of this). We would go next door to borrow the forklift from our neighbor, pick off the pallets and set them down on the street, and then we would pull them up our ramp.
After all of that, where are we going to put the chocolate? The building’s not air conditioned. We would hand unload every single pallet on to a cart, take it down the hallway into our conference room because that room was air conditioned. Then we’d unstack every single case. And that’s how we started handling chocolate in the west.
My next question was concerning your transition which you spoke of just now. A typical work day for you back then sounds like it was a mix, a little bit of everything.
The west was always Sales and Operations. As opposed to the east being Sales over here and Operations over there with separate people, separate reporting channels. When I came out west as the West Sales Director, I was Director of Operations and Director of Sales. I mean, Tom was really Director of Sales, but it didn’t matter who was leading, you were always worrying about the warehouse because we were small and you had to.
When we started out, the Customer Service Manager was also the Warehouse Manager. We didn’t ever really have a Warehouse Manager. Ultimately, one move we made, was we changed the title to Customer and Warehouse Manager. So, we created a new job. Lincoln (current West Sales Representative at Equal Exchange) got that job, and so once we moved over here (NW Industrial St in Portland, Oregon), we split the job again. We split it into two jobs because we’d gotten so big, the world is more complex, and once he left the position, you kind of ask: “Geez, why didn’t we do this sooner?”
I imagine if you are growing as quickly as we were, you’re constantly dealing with challenges you haven’t dealt with up until then. The landscape is always changing so-to-speak.
Exactly, and there again, an example with that is almonds. We had had this teeny, tiny, failing program. We had cranberries, we had pecans, and we had almonds. This was our domestic fair-trade program. All the supply chains that were domestic, they basically crashed and burned for different reasons. The program, let’s say, self-destructed because of supply chain unreliability.
At the end of that, the only thing we had was almonds and we decided to get rid of our almond inventory we would sell bulk almonds. That’s how our fruit and nut bulk program started, was us being saddled with a few thousand pounds of almonds and being like let’s just put a price on it and ask somebody if they want to buy this from us. That’s the kind of “problem” that we were very accustomed to facing and figuring out. Oh, it’s an Operation problem, we have all this inventory…it’s worth a lot of money, what do we do with it?
So, then you enter into that whole sales process and you find out if the price is wrong or if people want to buy it, or what is it? We had a compelling backstory on how we were sourcing the almonds. We knew where they were coming from, we had visited the farmers, so we had something to talk about. That’s how the bulk program, everything we are doing now, started from that weird mistake. From almonds and us not being able to put them in a little pouch any longer.
So one of my questions was roughly how many folks were working for Equal Exchange at that time. So it sounds like maybe ten around there roughly?
I’m going to say in 2009, we had the café, so let’s say for worker-owners there were three in Seattle in addition to some baristas that were not worker-owners at that time. We had Kevin in Sacramento and in Portland we had about six people and we had a part-time person in the office. We also had Adam who also did the DSD work. Lincoln got hired as a part-timer, and he came in 2011, I think, when we were all doing warehouse work. We all packed boxes every day. He was working part-time for a while, it was just like “Hey, man, you want some hours?” I think we didn’t have anybody full-time.
Just some part-timers.
Yes, so how many is that?
It’s roughly ten.
That’s about right.
So, just in comparison, we currently have about 30 employees out west?
I think we’re thirty! Let’s go office by office. In Portland we have 25 worker-owners and four worker-owners in Washington. That’s it for now. We lost some because of the café closing. So, now, we are up to 28, right? Now let’s go down the coast. Rafael is 30, Kevin is 31, and let’s go to Chicago and get Meade, that’s 32. Interesting, it’s very hard to keep track, it shouldn’t be, but it is.
Yet it’s gone from 10-32 employees out west in a matter of seven years.
Call it 2010 and now it’s 2018 and we’ve tripled in terms of people. Let’s call it 32.5 with Tom since he does still work with us in the west part time.
So, what’s next?
As part of delving into the Equal Exchange history, I want to take a moment to honor Jim Feldmann and the work he did for Equal Exchange. Is there anything that you would like to say about that?
Jim is responsible for a lot of things happening in the west, hiring Rafael is one them. Other than Raf’s own determination, which was considerable, Jim was the one who basically said to Tom: “You gotta hire this guy, we gotta hire this guy.” In typical Jim fashion, as we lovingly remember Jim, when he got a bee in his bonnet, he would be like a dog on a bone and he was that with Raf, because let’s say we didn’t need the body yet, but Jim was saying we gotta get this guy.
Jim’s fingerprints are on everything out here. He helped with the move from Hood River to here measurably. He’s, how can I put this…he’s had a variety of jobs. He’d go through periods where he’d be like: “Oh, I’m done with this now. What do I do? I finished this.” He was always looking for something new to do that would consume him. Kind of like a gift and a curse.
He was critical in building the relationship with New Seasons that we have today because when Roxanne left Jim became the glue at New Seasons. She was the sales rep and she had been a broker for New Seasons. They loved her. We hired her and then she decided to do something else. She’s at Life Source now, that’s something that she decided that she wanted to do again with her husband Jeff. Let’s call this 2009. He became Mr. Everything with New Seasons. Developing the relationships, getting to know the key people who were making decisions in the stores, building the DSD program to what it is now.
Jim had a way of involving himself in things. His heart was always in the right place, advocating for people and ideas. There was no truer believer in the Equal Exchange mission than Jim and he was always, always, always talking about the mission very effectively. Sometimes we just talk about selling stuff. Jim always had the mission. It intertwined with whatever he was talking about. He was always educating, always. He’d often speak in public, go to Portland State University, to teach a couple of classes on a Saturday. He did a lot to spread the word shall we say. He was like a brother to me. I can actually talk about him now, mostly without getting choked up. We couldn’t have done this without him.
Wow, thanks for that. Jim is certainly missed.
We’re just down to the last question here and just really quickly, what do you see as being some of the current challenges that Equal Exchange Portland faces and what do you see for our future in say the next twenty years?
Great question. We’re riddled with challenge right now in a manner we’ve never been challenged because it’s insidiously unknown, it’s not clear and it’s all market driven with the click-and-pick-up, with people’s grocery buying habits and methods changing, a bunch of stuff is shifting. People aren’t shopping in grocery stores of any description like they once did, as routinely. I’m not even saying everyone’s getting on Amazon and ordering x,y,z, people are eating out more, cooking less. So there’s a lot of unknowns. How much shifting? What other things should we be thinking of selling?
I think this is a good note to end on.
This has been really great for me too, Jenn. I really appreciate you taking on this thing and allowing me to ramble on. It’s been fun thinking about the old warehouse. Keeping in mind that elevator, you know what it is now? Try to stop in and see our elevator as a prop in a coffee shop!
I find that looking back at where you’ve come from is valuable to determining how to move forward as a company. Equal Exchange has a history of taking risks, making big changes, and thinking outside of the box. All in an effort to connect small-farmers and producers with consumers while building an alternative supply chain with products that are socially and environmentally responsible. We are a company with many nodes and staying connected through our stories sustains our strength as a worker-owned cooperative. There’s still much to tell about the west, so stay tuned for future posts about that and our journey to bringing the art of coffee roasting in-house.