Penny Wolff on the importance of loyalty

Penny Wolff

Penny Wolff speaks about the importance of loyalty, finding a strong mentor in the industry, and respecting coffee leaders who leave a legacy for us to follow.

Who’s your mentor? Who’s that one person in your life that lifts you up, empowers you, and becomes the biggest cheerleader of your career?

I have lots of mentors, but one in particular, was my dear friend Cassandra. When I was studying at university, she was the one who guided me, and encouraged me to realise that I could do whatever I set my mind to. Even though she has sadly passed away, her words of encouragement have stayed with me all these years later.

For Peter Wolff, his mentor was Chris Bryant, Co-Founder of Aromas Coffee in 1981. Peter joined the team in 1984, at a time that was quite pivotal to the company’s growth.

Peter started off as a dishwasher and worked his way up to become a sort of wingman for Chris, who was a trailblazer for the industry, sourcing single origins and creating blends for coffee and tea in the 80s. He taught Peter the ropes of business – not just in roasting but the mechanics of running a company. He taught him about single origin coffees and tea, the craft of blending, and how to complement flavours through the roasting process. He even took Peter on endless origin trips at a time it was quite unheard of. Chris helped Peter set up for success. From strong mentorship and a long employment period, Peter was provided guidance, confidence, and contacts in the industry.

Peter has remained friends with Chris all the way through his career. Even when we opened our new roastery in 2015, Peter thanked Chris, for it was his early support and guidance that helped shape the businessman, roaster, and person Peter is today. It is so important we respect those from the past who have passed on their knowledge for the future coffee professionals to step forward and start their own businesses. They remain invaluable sources of wisdom, often professionally and personally, steering us to succeed, standing tall like proud parents when we do. That’s the true making of a leader.

Peter worked at Aromas for 11 years. It was this longevity in the company that allowed him to deep-dive and understand all areas of the business. He grew his knowledge and skill, but what also grew over time, was a sense of loyalty.

In today’s current market, people have access to so many career options. Those options bring excitement with immediate change and potentially a financial increase, but it’s not always the answer to career trajectory or success. If you’re a coffee professional, ultimately, you’ll find that cafés and roasters do similar things. They typically roast, make and sell coffee, but what differs, is the values that sit behind a business. If you stay embedded in a business for a long period of time, that feeling of belonging and longevity makes you an asset.

I like to think of loyalty as a three-step process. Coming together is the beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together long-term is success.

I read through heaps of resumes a year, and if I see that someone moves ‘here, there and everywhere’, they go straight to the bottom of the pile. I’m not interested in someone who likes to hop around from employer to employer, or jumps ship when the going gets tough. I’m interested in someone who applies themselves.

For our management positions, we use a recruitment agency. After several applications, the person who stood out the most was the one with longevity of five or six years in a previous location. That tells me they’re a keeper, and if they’re happy and interested, they’ll stay.

It’s important that we recognise and celebrate loyalty. Mauricio Belarmino has worked at Wolff Coffee Roasters for the past five years. Over time, he’s moved through various roles at the company, studied, has excelled at his English, and now works in our marketing team and loves it. Mauricio’s skills and knowledge are so valuable because he’s been exposed to so much of our business and understands the products we sell. It’s not replicable even if we advertised for it.

Mauricio sees Peter and myself as his mentors, and I personally think we need to see more of it.

But who’s going to speak for you? It’s a question Wall Street veteran Carla Harris asked in a Ted Talk on how to get ahead in the workplace.

It’s important to note that a mentor is someone who has walked your path, someone who has the wisdom to guide you. A mentor’s job is to give you tailored advice that is specific to your career aspirations.

A sponsor however, is someone who has your best interest at heart. It’s not a person who can support you with a piece of paper to stay in the country. It’s someone who will raise you up and make you feel like you can enter a coffee competition or try your hand at roasting. It’s someone who pushes you to succeed in whatever it is you want to accomplish.

A sponsor is not a coach. That’s reserved for someone who gives you real direction to keep you aligned with your goals. A sponsor doesn’t have input in this area. They are a “yes” person in your corner.

Being a mentor or a sponsor, is a powerful responsibility. There’s something very attractive and rewarding about guiding a young barista or coffee professional through their career development.

Implementing a mentor program in the workplace is a solid way to further invest in your team and ensure you embed a methodology and mindset that enables you to ignite both individual and group organisational performance.

I am grateful to see fellow coffee companies like Aromas Coffee focusing on the importance of mentoring. The company carries on the mentoring legacy Chris instilled through funding Indigenous barista training programs in The Murrai and Hymba Yumba schools in Brisbane.

“We want to break down barriers so that the students can earn good money, be confident in their skills and make better lifestyle choices. We’ve funded 11 kids to go through the program and for every 11 in the program, there’s another 20 watching.

If they can see they have a good outcome and get jobs as a barista in the industry, they’ll also want to get involved,” says Adam Williams, who shares the current ownership of Aromas Coffee Roasters.

“One of the issues for our Indigenous kids is that most of the time their parents don’t work, and neither do their aunty or grandparents so they don’t have a workplace discussion around the dinner table. It doesn’t occur. What we see in the program, is that the kids come up with really cool entrepreneurial ideas which they don’t feel safe to voice anywhere else.”

Adam says it’s his job to ensure that he’s educating the next wave of barista talent and investing in their training and skills, which in turn creates job satisfaction.

“As leaders in the industry, it’s our responsibility to ensure that the next generation are more informed and inspired to do better,” he says.

If you’re a business operator, be accessible to our next generation of talent. Remember an experience or individual that once gave you a start in the industry. Peter sure does, and has paid it forward by mentoring hundreds of people in his career, in celebration of the knowledge and opportunities that was once provided to him.

And for baristas looking to take their next career step and grow personally, don’t be afraid to seek out a sponsor. It needs to be someone who has exposure to your work, someone who knows you, and can champions you 30 years down the line when you take the same step to sponsor someone else. That’s the power of a good sponsor.

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This article appears in the June 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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