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Wallenford coffee gets premium placement at Harrods

Published:Friday | May 6, 2016 | 12:00 AMSteven Jackson
Wallenford Coffee CEO Mark McIntosh.

Wallenford coffee Company Limited, the coffee company owned by billionaire investor Michael Lee-Chin, continues to secure deals with uber brands in an attempt to raise its own luxury profile distinct from other Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM) coffees.

Wallenford secured a deal this year to become the only single-estate branded JBM coffee at the prestigious Harrods department store in the United Kingdom. Harrods will continue selling other JBM coffee.

"The general JBM sells for £20 per 100 grammes, while Wallenford's JBM sells for £30 per 100 grammes," said Wallenford boss Mark McIntosh from his coffee office at Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston.

"While I got into Harrods in 2014, only this year did they start offering my coffee distinct from other JBM," he said.

McIntosh can now tick Harrods off his list of targets that he set for himself when Lee Chin acquired the coffee asset three years ago from the Jamaican Government.

The company has since targeted associations with other luxury brands such as watchmaker Richard Mille and high-end Starbucks Reserve, the bespoke roastery of global cafÈ chain Starbucks. When available, Starbucks Wallenford Estate coffee is the highest price point coffee on the menu at the Reserve cafÈs in Asia.

As speciality coffee lovers are drawn to unique coffee experiences, coffee prices are higher where there is a more unique story to the beans. So coffee from a single origin, such as the Blue Mountain range of Jamaica, has been one of the highest price point coffees for most of its existence.

Single-estate is even more unique than single-origin as it narrows down the source of the coffee to generally one plantation. That's Wallenford's story in Harrods, which allows it to garner a better price than general JBM.

"The coffee team at Harrods, led by head coffee and tea buyer and fine foods expert Clare Welton, describes Wallenford as having "a smoother finish with a more mellow aftertaste".

Other JBM brands have received single-estate status at Harrods in the past. However, McIntosh, the Harvard-trained private equity investor and now coffee advocate, says that there is no other single-estate JBM currently being offered at the department store. Still, some local sceptics say that Harrods will not move meaningful volumes for a company the size of Wallenford, which sells the third-largest volumes in the industry.

McIntosh countered that, saying questions about volume are quickly answered "within minutes" of standing on one of the busiest shop floors in the world, particularly for a luxury store. He adds that irrespective of the sales volume, brand association holds more long-term importance than moving volumes in the short-term.

"When mister uber-wealthy traveller from Russia, China or Dubai opens the coffee book at Harrods and sees my brand, it makes him know who we are. That is a form of advertising that you cannot pay for," said McIntosh.

In a bid to drive sales, McIntosh jets across the globe to meet his buyers directly at customers such as Starbucks Reserve and Harrods in an attempt to not only know their sales chain but to infuse sales ideas and strategy among the line staff. They sell more product if they know the guy who runs the show in Jamaica, he quipped.

"They sell even more if they like him," he said.

In this, he says he follows Lee Chin's guidance: "You can't find economic growth by sitting in your office."

Despite all these brand associations as an impetus to drive core sales, McIntosh declined to comment on whether Wallenford makes money.

"It is a private company in a competitive industry. I will not discuss numbers," he said, while also declining to respond to whether the company breaks even.

The Jamaican Government divested the company in 2013, in part due to its many years of losses and an accumulated deficit nearing $1.6 billion.

Lee Chin's Portland Holdings, through subsidiary company AIC International Investments Limited, acquired Wallenford in a deal valued at just over $4 billion.

While Wallenford works its way into luxury-associated outlets in the United States, United Kingdom and Asia, other coffee brands are forging links with mainstream brands in the US. Specifically last year, Marley Coffee, which buys JBM alongside commodity coffees from Africa and the Americas, forged a brand association with the Denver Broncos just prior to that NFL team winning Super Bowl 2016.