A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Coffee with a Conscience- Who is David McKernan?

Starting out on this project, I wanted to meet a wide range of individuals working for social change in all sectors, including business. In Ireland, the name Java Republic Coffee Company kept cropping up. The man behind it is David McKernan.

David is a hard core business entrepreneur. Leaving school, he went straight into a successful career in one of Ireland’s main coffee retailers, Bewley’s, and there learned the trade. After 12 years he knew it was time to venture alone, and so went on to set up Java Republic Roasting Coffee Company in 1999. With the tag line, ‘Coffee with a Conscience’, Java Republic is one of the fastest growing coffee brands in Ireland. It has been a tough road to get where he is, but the business is now booming. With a current turnover in excess of 6 million a year, David is still plotting expansion. The growth is impressive, particularly considering that he started out at the kitchen table, and nearly lost his house along the way. He admits to making every mistake in the book, but he kept going.

A three week trip to India in 1994 brought the ‘social’ dimension to his entrepreneurial streak. ‘Before the trip’, he said, ‘I had no idea what was going on. I may have gone through Live Aid, but I had no idea of the issues; I didn’t understand the poverty, I didn’t understand the social needs. So when I went to India, I got the shock of my life’. Arriving in Bombay, David wanted to visit a local hospital to see what the conditions were really like – but he never made it. Having to step over bodies to get in, he eventually could go no further, ‘I just couldn’t believe that people live like this’, he said. It was a trip which proved to be a pivotal moment in his business career. ‘I actually just realised then that there was something else to life which I had never before realised. That trip was the biggest change to me’.

David is currently in the process of establishing the Java Republic Foundation in which 11% of the company’s profits will be directed to assisting communities in the regions in which his coffee is grown. In addition, 35% of his coffee is sourced from fairtrade channels, which he is keen to bring to 100%- without jeopardising the quality of the coffee. He is also an advocate of the coffee co-operative movement. To him, it is not enough that the farm owner gets a fair deal, but the farm workers should also be guaranteed a fair wage and conditions. The co-operative movement is one way to approach it, ‘a way to ensure that everyone is being looked after’.

But to David, it is not about ‘do-gooding’, he knows his approach makes business sense. ‘I want to know that our business is based on sound principles’, he asserts, ‘I don’t want anyone every to be able to say that Java Republic is screwing the producers; the small farmers who collectively put our coffee into the market place’.

Don’t be mistaken though; he loves money. He takes regular holidays abroad with his family, has a beautiful house, fancy car- all the trappings which his monetary success had enabled.

I asked him what were some of the key attributes to get him where he is today- Never taking ‘no’ for an answer. Focus. Persistence.

However it is not all work. Keeping healthy is a particular passion and David is a fanatical sports fan. When I met him, at 8am, he had already been up for 4 hours, which included a visit to the gym!

What did I find most interesting about David? Mostly his confidence. It seems that despite the knocks, it is his confidence in his ability to succeed which keeps him buoyant. ‘Is there anybody you would like to meet?’, I asked him, ‘No, because if there was, I would have picked up the phone and called’. ‘Is there anything you would like to do next?’, ‘Not really, I’m already doing it’. ‘Is there anything you have to learn?’, ‘Humility’!


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