Assaad Benabid: The Collector

Gruppo Cimbali S.p.A. / USA Inc

There have been many minor mentors in my life. Elders, I have gleaned wisdom from whether they were serving it on purpose or not. I’ve always watched those that came before me, hoping to get some key insight into how to live that would make my life richer, easier, or at least, with fewer mistakes. It wasn’t until I met Assaad Benabid, CEO of Gruppo Cimbali North America, that I found a true mentor that was consistently there for me and only taught by how he lived and what he valued 

Assaad has worked in the coffee business since the early ’80s, always for espresso machine companies and always in a variation of a sales role. Assaad put quite a dent in the American coffee culture by helping change perception and create exposure to espresso and the European lifestyle and attitude toward enjoying espresso. Assaad was pushing FAEMA espresso machines and sharing his joy for espresso in a time in the US when most of the country was drinking coffee out of a can. “I started in a very, very small industry and now it has become a big industry. I’m happy to see that I played a small role in that. That I was a part of that puzzle,” Assaad recalls. 

Pioneering espresso machine sales in the US was not the most valuable contribution that Assaad would bring to the coffee industry. Anyone that knows Assaad understands that the true genius of Assaad Benabid is his relationships, how he creates them, fosters, and grows them. 

You could go to dinner with Assaad in just about any country in the world and you will find yourself surrounded by his friends from all different levels of the food and beverage industry. You could be eating with anyone from Howard Schultz down to the local barista. He collects people the way some of us collect stamps or coins. He cares for them, polishes them, and in return they shine for him. This is his gift. 

This amazing ability begins with Assaad’s most early mentors, his parents. Growing up in Morocco, Assad’s father was a very important figure in the community. Being a police chief, he would sometimes have houseguests that included heads of state. At that same dinner party, his father would have his favorite fishmonger or baker over as well. This was his way, he would have friends from all walks of life at opposite ends of the social scale and he would bring them together, make them feel welcome, and find the common ground that they all had and share. 

Assaad’s mother was also instrumental in his worldview as she would always say, “be good and generous with your sentiments, sharing food, and being a friend. It will always open doors and lead to good things.”

Mr. Benabid spent a lot of time in cafes in Tangier’s which was, “A city with a lot of flare” he remembers. “Very international. People of all different backgrounds, languages, and religions. We were all different, yet we all loved to have a cup of coffee or mint tea. This was our pleasure in the morning and at the end of the day. It was a place to meet people and learn the way the town works and its social structure, it was a forum. A good coffee with a good taste was always a real pleasure.”

It was in Tangier that Mr. Benabid grew up with Arabic and French as his first languages. Then Spanish followed with its proximity to Morocco. Later Assaad would pick up English in time to attend Skidmore College and then Columbia School of International Affairs where he was meaning to become a mediator in International diplomacy. “I wanted to take two people or parties that were fighting and then bring them together and say, ‘why are you fighting?’ ‘Ok, let’s figure it out over a cup of coffee,” Assaad explains. 

Assaad always starts with food and coffee as key insights into anyone’s culture. From there he can start to understand them. This is where he begins to connect. Then his ability with languages takes over. He speaks five languages, each with a perfect accent and fluidity to the point that you couldn’t guess which one came first. This incredible skill with language is one of his strongest tools for connecting with most people on the planet. Riding in a car on your way into New York City you will find him interrupt your conversation with intermittent phone calls where he transitions from English to French to Italian back to English smoother than his car shifts gears. 

Beyond this ability and worldly point of view, ultimately it is his respect for all people that allows him to make friends wherever he goes. Assaad truly cares about people and is interested in what they have to say. He is happy to take his time and chit-chat with the parking attendant getting his car or the short-order cook where he’s picking up lunch. He is never in too big a rush to communicate, listen and try to understand the other person. It is this consistent attitude and spirit that he brings to all interactions that attract people to him and make them want to return the respect. 

Then he continues to feed the relationship and it grows and grows over time. Before you know it, you’ve been friends for over ten years. Assaad once explained to me on one of our drives to the city, “I am constantly feeding my network. I listen to what each person needs and then I try to give that to them however I can.” 

Finally, I ask Assaad, what message would you pass along to the next generation of coffee professionals? He thinks, but only for a moment, and answers rather quickly, “Patience. This is a very important quality that I notice most people don’t have. Often people can be in such a hurry and focused on themselves that they don’t give the time of day to someone unless they think it will benefit them in some way. We could be at a trade show and vagabond could show up to my booth and I will connect with them and offer them a coffee. For me, it is all the same. For me, it is a pleasure to speak to people: a barista, a major executive, or the janitor, it’s all the same. When you give someone your time and respect and they feel you shift your attention and give them positive body language it makes a remarkable impact.”

The energy Assaad brings to any exchange transforms his guests and has earned him a lasting reputation and a variety of nicknames include: “The King of Coffee,” “Mr. FAEMA,” “The Dean,” and “The President.” Assaad explains, “I received this respect without asking for it. I thought it was a joke at first but then it kept happening and people kept giving me these titles.”

“Be true to the way that you do the job and the people you work with. I always thought my job was creating a way of life rather than selling machines.” Assaad finishes. 

I agree completely. The joy he brings to his work and to all the people he surrounds himself with is infectious and keeps everyone coming back.

Coffee has been a relationship business for many generations and only recently has that chain started to weaken. Relationships are what allows us to achieve great things on our merit with only our level of creativity and drive to limit our achievements. The bonds we make are things that remain even as an economy crumbles. It is only when we come together and remember those we have known in the past and help each other that we can rebuild that which is broken. 

Assaad’s way of life is exactly the kind of example we need to keep in mind today as we rebuild for the future.

by Jake Leonti

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