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SCA gets a new Chief

From the March 2019 issue.

As Ric Rhinehart steps down to pursue the Specialty Coffee Association’s price crisis initiative, new Executive Director Yannis Apostolopoulos looks to expand the global specialty coffee community.

On paper, Yannis Apostolopoulos’ introduction to the coffee world came in 2009 when the Greek wine and spirits distribution business he was running decided to make a foray into coffee. The truth, however, is that Apostolopoulos has a long history with coffee simply by being Greek.

“Greece has a huge coffee culture and it’s been that way since the early ages,” he tells Global Coffee Report, making sure to note that his home country has the highest number of world coffee champions. “We’re really passionate about it. As a culture, we drink coffee to socialise. It’s not just a functional drink for us.”

In fact, high-end coffee beverages are served at hip venues right alongside the wines and spirits his company represented, so expanding into coffee was a natural choice.

That business venture into coffee ended up being a game-changer for both the distribution company and for Apostolopoulos. The company’s coffee division grew to be very successful within a few years, and Apostolopoulos discovered a passion that ultimately led him to the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE).

As the company, WS Karoulias SA, pursued the coffee business, Apostolopoulos strove to learn as much as he could about the product and its industry.

“The further I got into coffee and the more I learned about the value of coffee, the more it spoke to my sweet spot,” he says. “I fully embraced the value of specialty coffee because I saw it as something that could make a real impact on other people’s lives, and so the fact that I could give something back to the community was really important to me. That’s when I fell in love with coffee.”

In 2012, Apostolopoulos started volunteering with the SCAE, and in 2013 became a certified Q Grader. That same year he joined the board, helping set up the first Barista Guild of Europe in collaboration with former SCAE President Cosimo Libardo. He then established the Roasters Guild of Europe with help from Sonja Björk Grant, a renowned barista, roaster, and trainer, and one of the pioneers of the various championships World Coffee Events hosts. In 2016, he left Karoulias to join SCAE as Deputy Executive Director.

Fast-forward to today, and Apostolopoulos has been named Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the global entity formed when SCAE merged with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in late 2016. At the end of 2018, former Executive Director Ric Rhinehart stepped down to pursue the organisation’s new Coffee Price Response Initiative. As Deputy Executive Director, Apostolopoulos stepped into the vacancy.

He says his transition into this role was always part of the plan following the unification, with Rhinehart intending to serve up to five years in the role to see through the integration of the two organisations. However, given the current price crisis in the global coffee industry, that plan changed upon conception of the SCA’s latest initiative.

“It was made apparent at the SCA board meeting in Berlin in September that the way coffee prices were [trending], we needed to take immediate action, so the board came together to discuss potential ideas,” Apostolopoulos explains. It was there that the Coffee Price Response Initiative was born. “Ric is truly the best person to lead it with his knowledge and connections. He has done great coffee work all around the world and he truly understands the problem.”

Rhinehart was named Executive Director of SCAA in 2008, a role in which he established himself as a voice and a leader in not only the US coffee industry, but also the global coffee industry. According to Apostolopoulos, he was one of the major proponents of the unification between SCAA and SCAE, seeing it as a way to have a bigger voice and bigger impact for specialty coffee.

“Ric has proved a great leader for the specialty coffee community, especially in the United States, but also all around the world he has demonstrated great leadership and has spearheaded initiatives to advance the specialty coffee agenda,” Apostolopoulos says of his predecessor.

Since the unification, Apostolopoulos has been responsible for ensuring that the operational components of the two organisations, from finance and human resources, to memberships and guilds, integrated as smoothly as possible.

“During a merger process, everyone is working on everything, so I wouldn’t say I had a single responsibility other than to make sure that this merger was successful,” he tells GCR, acknowledging that odds weren’t especially in their favour. “The truth is that at least 75 per cent of global mergers fail, so we have to make sure that we don’t fail. It has been very challenging.”

Now at the helm, Apostolopoulos is responsible for “taking SCA into the future and accomplishing the many critical projects and objectives laid out in our strategic plan”, the SCA announced in a member newsletter in December.

“For the past two years we were mostly facing inward to make sure everything was running smoothly,” he says, “but now what we as an executive team are focusing on are initiatives that will have an impact on coffee communities around the world. And if we want to make an impact on the livelihoods of people, we need to have a bigger voice and create a stronger network of professional individuals that embrace the same values – that’s how we make an impact at the end.” 

When asked if there are any platforms he’s passionate about or any specific issues he hopes to focus on, Apostolopoulos is quick to acknowledge the many issues that need to be addressed, and the many SCA team members working on them.

“There are many issues that we need to be engaging in, including developing better listening mechanisms and being more inclusive,” he says. “And it’s not only about me – it’s about a team of people. We have a great team working at SCA and I’m very honoured to be named the Executive Director of such a talented executive team.”

Just like the communities it serves, that hard-working team spans the globe. Following the unification, SCA is registered in Southern California as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, while its main Europe office is located just outside London.

From South Korea and the United States to the United Kingdom and across Europe, “we have staff working all around the world”, Apostolopoulos says. “The executive team actually works on a cloud, because they’re all over the place.”

Leveraging their wide reach, they can work together to advance that aforementioned agenda on a truly global scale.

“We all have our passions of topics and ideas, but we all know what our purpose is: to make coffee a sustainable, equitable, and thriving activity for the whole value chain,” Apostolopoulos tells GCR. “For me, the next three to five years will be focused on finding ways to make SCA more relevant, and creating strong communities around the world to make SCA like a supportive canvas to connect, grow, and educate.”

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