Espresso Company Australia CEO Charles Stephens talks about putting people first, working with passionate partners, and why the brand had to evolve with the changing needs of the industry.
When Charles Stephens first started operating an espresso bar with his cousin between 1998 and 1999, it was labour-intensive, high-volume work, but he loved it.
“Bar Ré was the first espresso coffee- focused café on Sydney’s northern beaches in comparison to the vast option of espresso bars and cafés now on offer. I look back on that experience knowing that it was challenging, but the ideal framework for the industry I’ve grown a career in,” says Charles, CEO of Espresso Company Australia (ECA).
“It helped me to really understand the fundamentals of coffee: the structure of milk, what temperature, time and pressure does to fresh coffee, and what flow rate does to the taste and flavour of coffee, which is so crucial.”
That experience set the foundation for Charles’ foray into coffee equipment distribution with an international manufacturer in 2000. Charles operated the Australian distribution of the business for three years from the front room of his house and a third-party warehouse.
It sold the now iconic Italian Giotto home espresso machine, Veneziano commercial machine, and Anfim coffee grinders. Charles was everything the businesses needed him to be: salesman, administration, marketer, technician, and customer service provider.
Charles eventually upgraded his room to a small warehouse and questioned how he would fill the space. In just 12 months, it was bursting at the seams.
“I enjoyed being busy. I recall on one day, I made and received 66 phone calls while out driving. I would pick up and deliver products, do invoicing at night, and write personalised compliment slips thanking the customer for their order,” he says.
Eight years into the business in 2008, a key manufacturer and supplier went into receivership, leaving Charles to narrowly escape a similar fate. He says it was a “humbling experience” which took years to recover from.
“Perspective is a really cool thing. If you haven’t been put into a challenging situation personally or professionally, you don’t know what it’s like to get out of it. You only get that with taking a calculated risk, having a go, and doing the time,” Charles says.
Charles decided to rename and operate the business as an independent branded company, representing a range of manufacturers. With that, ECA was born. For the past 14 years, ECA has developed its own reputation as the sole importer and distributor of key equipment manufacturing partners, which includes Rocket Espresso, Anfim, Ailio, Cinoart, VBM, Kees van der Westen, and Morning.
ECA is committed to long-term partnerships with manufacturers who share a passion for coffee, performance, and prioritise building relationships. Charles says ECA’s success and that of its brands, is a result of the manufacturer’s willingness to understand the importance of partnering with ECA on a sole distribution model.
“This has been key to the growth of both the company and our brands in a market that, per capita, is still a relatively small and competitive industry,” Charles says.
He adds that ECA’s partners genuinely appreciate the rapport and respect the company provides, as do the retailers and roasters ECA supplies its equipment too.
“We aim to be a great supplier so that our partners can be great operators of their own business, and that’s the key to being a wholesaler – it’s a relationship journey first and foremost, that leads to a profitable, healthy, and sustainable business,” Charles says.
With the core purpose to “honour the craft of coffee” and “go further” with product innovation and developments, ECA is committed to bringing the best technology and aesthetics from global manufacturers to the Australian specialty coffee industry.
“We actively search off the back of what the industry needs, which has become a reversal from when I first started and the industry took what
you had – a professional espresso machine, and a couple of grinders. Now, it’s a matter of discretion through the research and trials the roaster and barista work through to determine what they want and need on the bench,” Charles says.
Ten years ago, electronic grinders, brew ratios and scales were finding their place on the espresso bar. Fast forward, and the automation of equipment has accelerated in this time. Innovations
are now focused on consistency of quality, workflow, and repeatability, and ECA has expanded beyond the sale of traditional espresso equipment.
“The market is very open minded, and we’ve been able to have thought- provoking discussions. Technology has adapted, and our manufacturers listen to our feedback from the local market to further drive progression in their equipment range. At ECA, we have also evolved, by broadening our offering to include capsule machines and roasting equipment,” Charles says. “Coffee will always change, as will the way people perceive it, make it, and drink it. But the only thing they still want, is access to great coffee, and that’s a big driver
in what we’re looking for with our equipment offerings.”
Charles says it’s this evolution of knowledge that has been the most exciting development in his time at ECA. “It’s what drives the industry forward and gives us the chance to access a whole range of equipment that can help develop flavour and widen the customer’s knowledge,” he says.
“Ten years ago, the broad knowledge of coffee and what temperature, time and equipment do to the coffee wasn’t well discussed, but it’s really come to the fore,” Charles says. “The biggest evolution I’ve seen is the industry’s knowledge and willingness to understand a better cup and bringing it together with better equipment. There’s no room for average anymore. We just have to be better.”
With that relit fire and a broadened identity, ECA has undergone a rebranding with a new-look logo, refreshed website, realignment of brands and core message, and the result is a linear and evolving structure for ECA to better support its network of roasters and retailers in Australia.
ECA has adopted the tagline “Roast, Grind, Pour”, which encompasses each arm of the business and the preparation of coffee. It also allows ECA to continue exploring and engaging with manufacturers on product evolution and development as equipment versatility and choice continues to grow.
“This rebranding has been a very positive experience, one that resembles an exciting, refreshing way forward. We looked deeper at what we are doing, where we are going, and who with,” Charles says. “Coffee is our core focus, but relationships are equally important.”
ECA has grown its “family” with a sales and service team, marketing and accounts, and a technical team that provide in-house preparation, service, support, and repair of all commercial and domestic equipment.
“It sounds a bit cliché that we describe our business as a family, but it really is. We are all like-minded people who live coffee and love people. We put people first and the outcome of
that is longevity of relationships with customers and manufacturers through trust and support. Our business is about good business with great people,” Charles says.
There are now ECA staff and technicians who have embraced their 10th and 17th years of employment, and loyal customers and exclusive partners within the Australian and international network who have been there since the beginning.
The result of such trust is ECA’s growth of sales, year on year, across is home espresso and commercial equipment. As such, Charles is excited and confident about the potential for the next three to five years, and beyond.
“Currently, everyone has an enthusiastic, lets-go attitude. MICE (the Melbourne International Coffee Expo) was for me, quite an amazing epiphany this year.
“To get back and shake hands with people, and be in the company of others again for the first time in three years was wonderful. And now, for us at ECA, it’s about continuing a commitment to giving people good service,” Charles says.
“I feel very fortunate and happy to be in this wonderful industry that doesn’t need six years of an architecture or accounting degree to do a good job in. I love that this is an industry that celebrates good people doing great things, and it’s an ethos we carry and celebrate all the way at ECA.”
For more information, visit espressocompany.com.au
This article appears in the December 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.