Juan Valdez President Camila Escobar on the responsibility of leading Colombia’s iconic coffee growers’ brand and turning challenges into its greatest opportunities.
If the Statue of Liberty is considered a national icon of the United States, just like the pyramids are to Egypt and the maple leaf is to Canada, then Juan Valdez, a figure representing more than 540,000 coffee growers, is a national icon of Colombia.
So, when Camila Escobar considered taking on the role of Procafecol President, the company with the license for the Juan Valdez café brand and retail chain, she was asked one very important question: “what would make your kids proud of you?” That’s when Escobar knew she had to embrace the opportunities and challenges that came with working for the sacred brand.
“[My kids] are very proud to see their mum leading a company and have in her hands the Colombian national icon that is Juan Valdez,” Escobar tells Global Coffee Report.
“Coffee is a central part of the Colombian culture and the Juan Valdez brand is as important as the Colombian flag. It’s a symbol for all Colombians and to lead that is a huge responsibility – for our coffee sector and for Colombia – because there is no other brand in the world owned by its producers.”
The National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC) established Juan Valdez in 2002 with the mission to captivate the world with premium Colombian coffee while generating value for its growers. The FNC tasked the brand with opening Juan Valdez shops around the world, of which there are now 322 in Colombia and more than 140 in 13 countries, including Ecuador, Chile, the United States, Spain, and Panama. Juan Valdez products are also available in supermarkets and retail chains in more than 30 countries around the globe.
But that volume reduced drastically, seemingly overnight in mid-March, when Juan Valdez became one of the first brands in Colombia to close its stores to protect its customers and employees from early contagion of the coronavirus, well before government instruction.
“It was a difficult moment for us, because 70 per cent of our sales come from our coffee shops. It meant a huge drop in income for the company, and of course has resulted in many economic challenges, but this pandemic has also impacted our farmers and our customers,” Escobar says.
The pandemic forced Juan Valdez to put its original 2020 plans on hold. The company moved swiftly to keep customers and staff safe, and to find new ways to connect with its audience. It strengthened its e-commerce platforms and established delivery, pickup, and takeaway services via a newly developed Juan Valdez app so that customers could buy coffee, food, and merchandise.
Retail volumes also rose dramatically. From March to April, Escobar says at-home coffee consumption in Colombia rose 26 per cent, and a further 16 per cent since then, according to Radar market data.
“This tells us that coffee is one of the products that hasn’t been so badly affected by the pandemic. What has changed, however, is consumption habits, certainly in Colombia but also worldwide,” Escobar says. “Our mission, has been how to capture these new consumption opportunities and deliver a product the customer wants and needs.”
The pandemic has seen Juan Valdez accelerate projects in line with its four brand strategies: brand strengthening, consolidating the national market, achieving exponential growth in the international market, and transforming the company culture. Juan Valdez is now exporting retail products to new overseas markets.
“Behind this is our intention to keep our brand relevant to customers in a time where it could easily not be. You could live without Juan Valdez during the pandemic, but social media has shown us how much our customers love and miss us. So, if they can’t come to us, we will go to them,” Escobar says.
While the company waits for further restrictions to ease so that in-store dining can resume, behind the scenes ‘strict yet fun’ protocols have been put in place to speak directly to the customer. Signs display the message ‘we’ve missed you a lot too’, and protective shields say, ‘it’s only temporary but our friendship is forever’. Even Juan Valdez and the mule Conchita icon was modified with a temporary face mask to promote hygiene measures and avoid spreading COVID-19.
BORN TO LEAD
Escobar is an industrial engineer from Los Andes University with an MBA from Harvard Business School. She says her strong educational background is what opened the doors to her career in the coffee sector.
“I remember one of my professors, probably one of the most important teachers I had in my life, Luis Alberto Godoy, who worked for the FNC with Roberto Velez, then FNC’s commercial manager and now CEO. They invited me to do an internship there in the financial risk management department while I completed my studies. We used to hedge the price of coffee,” Escobar says.
It was also through her first job at the FNC that Escobar visited a coffee farm for the first time, having grown up in Bogota, outside the country’s renowned producing regions.
“It was a beautiful experience. What you feel when you go into the Colombian mountains is pure magic. The small product the growers work with, a simple red cherry, represents so much: the optimism of Colombia, the taste of our country and what can be achieved from seed to cup. It’s where you learn about the love Colombians have for our coffee producing heritage, that is mainly still all hand crafted,” she says.
After working at the FNC in her early 20s, Escobar completed her studies before becoming head of the Business Intelligence and Marketing Unit at Belcorp and consulted on high-impact projects at McKinsey Colombia for several years. She joined the Procafecol team in 2018, and now finds herself working with many of the same people she did all those years ago during her internship.
“I describe myself as a problem solver. It’s what I do every day. If I have a challenge, an issue or an opportunity – it doesn’t have to be bad, it can be a positive situation – I try to solve it,” she says.
Escobar says the first year and a half at Juan Valdez has been a “transformational experience”. She took the company through a change in strategy, team, and company vision, and has strengthened relationships while achieving “extraordinary results”. In 2019, Procafecol recorded COP$314 million (about US$82 million) in sales, an 11 per cent growth compared to 2018, and 15 per cent growth in earning with a 9 per cent decrease in financial debt.
“We had better results than what we expected. The budget was not easy but we grew in double digits in all our channels, especially internationally which was difficult to do, so I felt very proud of that and the way we worked through it was directly related to our leadership characteristics and our teamwork,” Escobar says.
“It’s been both a challenging and rewarding experience. I’ve had the opportunity to grow as a professional, to grow as a person, and to grow as a leader, all while delivering value to 540,000 coffee growing families in Colombia.”
Escobar never envisaged herself working for the coffee industry. She did, however, envisage having an impact on Colombia and its female population. As luck would have it, in 2019, with the assistance of the FNC, Juan Valdez strengthened the Mujeres Cafeteras initiative to promote the coffee grown by 22 members of Colombia’s Viotá and Tequendama regions. In Colombia, just a third of growers are women, farming 26 per cent of the land.
“Especially because I’m a woman, having the opportunity to reinforce our Mujeres Cafeteras product was amazing. Last year I went to one of the contributing farming areas and to see the faces of the women and how a project like this has really changed their lives, was so powerful. [The women have] become more confident about themselves, their kids are better off, and so is their community as a whole,” Escobar says. “It was one of the most emotional moments in my career at Juan Valdez and is definitely something that drives me forward, to keep creating value to communities and especially to the more vulnerable populations like women and youth.”
Embracing the next generation of growers is one of Juan Valdez’s strategic priorities and greatest challenges, but so is increasing local consumption of Colombian coffee.
“Compared to older generations, the youth are more open to trying new methods of coffee consumption, they are more passionate about sustainability, and they are very conscious about what they are drinking and where it comes from, so this is an opportunity Juan Valdez can capture,” Escobar says.
“Our challenges are our greatest opportunities. We are a company that was born to be social. We were born to be environmentally friendly and to be economically viable. If we can capture that shared value, then we should be able to capture new customers and generations of coffee drinkers.”
MORE THAN A DREAM
According to the FNC’s September report, Colombia, the world’s largest producer of mild washed Arabica, experienced a record production season from October 2019 to August 2020, exceeding 13.1 million bags, up 3 per cent compared to the almost 12.8 million bags produced in the same previous period.
Escobar says this is a tremendous effort considering the logistics involved in safely collecting the harvested coffee. As the country prepares for its second harvest of the year, Escobar anticipates another strong result, forecast to hit 14 million bags.
“It’s been an amazing year for Colombia in terms of its coffee, in quality and quantity, but importantly in terms of price, we’re seeing some really healthy prices for producers,” she says.
Before the pandemic hit, Escobar would visit Juan Valdez coffee farms regularly and talk directly to farmers about their needs. In this ‘new climate’, the company relies on its strong ties with the FNC and has two growers on its Steering Committee, representing 20 per cent of the board.
“Communication is always key to progress and has certainly been one of the leadership characteristics that has been crucial during the pandemic,” Escobar says.
“We don’t have all the answers, so we must communicate with our wider team in order to navigate through the uncertainty and vulnerability that this situation brings. It’s important to embrace vulnerability through the opportunity side and not from the fear side, which is what Juan Valdez has been trying to do.”
Escobar wakes up each day with the same purpose: to captivate the world with the best of Colombian coffee in order to generate value for the Colombian coffee growers. It’s this clear, tangible, and meaningful purpose that motivates her to do her best for the community she leads – pandemic or no pandemic.
“One of my kids now says I harvest coffee and she says it so proudly that it makes me feel proud as well,” Escobar says.
“I want to inspire others towards a common goal. That’s true leadership to me. I hope that my transition into a leadership position opens the possibilities for other women to follow.
“My role is to show that women can add value to the table because of the diversity of conversations and diversity of approaches we bring to the table and our ability to deliver results. I’m passionate about doing that through Juan Valdez. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here.”
This article appears in the November/December 2020 edition of Global Coffee Report. Subscribe HERE.