On the Shoulders of Giants

Rick Peyser, Life Long Industry K

IMG_5753 copyThey say reading and coffee go hand-in-hand. For Rick Peyser, former director of social advocacy and supply chain community outreach at Green Mountain, earning a B.A. in English during the height of the Vietnam War in 1972 led Peyser down the path—albeit indirectly—to the coffee industry.

Upon graduating from Denison University in Granville, OH, Peyser followed his college love, Jan, to Vermont where she attended graduate school. After a few years of working in various roles in different industries, Peyser found himself occasionally visiting a shop owned by a new company, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), now Keurig Green Mountain. Before long, Peyser’s work was demanding a lot of travel, and with two young children at home, the extensive travel was presenting some challenges.

“One day, I happened to see an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press for a mail order marketing director at Green Mountain,” Peyser says. “I applied, and soon started to develop the company’s fledgling mail order business.”

During his first year with the company, Peyser was fixated on building the mail order business.

“I used the company’s three retail stores to collect names to build a mailing list, segmented the list, and developed various mailings to generate mail orders or to encourage people to visit our stores,” Peyser says.

A year into this job, Bill Fishbein, who had just founded Coffee Kids, came to GMCR to seek the company’s support.

“Up until Bill’s visit, I had been totally focused on developing the business.  Bill’s visit, for the very first time, put a face on coffee for me,” Peyser says. “I quickly learned that there were people who grew this product, many of whom were facing challenges in meeting basic needs.   Two years later, I joined 11 other employees on GMCR’s first employee trip to origin—a tradition that continues to this day.”

In Costa Rica, Peyser saw coffee growing, being processed, dried, sorted, but saw no poverty like that which was depicted in the Coffee Kids information.

In 1993, GMCR became a publicly owned corporation and soon thereafter the company realized that it needed a director of public relations, and Peyser was asked if he would be interested in taking on this role.

“I felt the need to reconcile the world of coffee I had seen in Costa Rica, a very advanced country, with the extreme poverty I saw in Coffee Kids’ brochures,” Peyser says. “Which was the real world of coffee?  I used a week of vacation time to travel with a small group of people from the industry on a trip put together by Elan Organic Coffees to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico.   On this trip I learned about organic certified coffee, cupped it, met the farmers who grew it, visited their farms, and was introduced to their cooperatives. It was a life-changing experience for me, and I knew I wanted to return to this part of the world.  Unfortunately, I had never studied Spanish, and wanted to be able to communicate directly with farmers, so for the next four years or so I used my vacation time to attend immersion courses in Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico until I could communicate effectively.”

In his public relations role, Peyser worked hard to bring issues at origin to the company and to the public. He felt that if the public only knew how challenging it was to grow coffee, there would be a greater appreciation for the product, and the farming families who worked so hard to produce it.

“I hoped that this appreciation would be then begin to close the gap between these two worlds,” Peyser says.

In 2006, the company asked Peyser if he would be interested in taking on a new role.  For many years, GMCR had contributed 5% of its pre-tax earnings to projects in communities where it did business.  About half of these funds were put in local domestic communities, while the balance was put to work in the coffee supply chain.

“My role was to manage the company’s supply chain community outreach,” Peyser says. “I quickly accepted this position, which was a dream come true for me. I could not have been happier in this role that was focused on helping coffee farming families improve their quality of life.”

Before starting to invest in the company’s supply chain, Peyser needed more information. In 2007, he traveled with CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) to conduct one-on-one interviews with small-scale farmers in Nicaragua, to learn about the challenges and opportunities they were facing at the household level.

To Peyser’s surprise, every farmer he interviewed told him that they had three to four months of extreme scarcity of food in their home every year.

“This stunned me, and when I returned I spoke with colleagues in the industry who worked in coffee for years, and who had traveled a lot. I learned that I wasn’t alone in being surprised by this phenomenon known as ‘the thin months’ or ‘los meses flacos,’” Peyser says. “I knew that if farmers could not feed their families, that they would not feed their coffee plants.”

After additional information from CIAT and subsequent meetings with members of their team, with farmers, cooperative leaders, and NGOs, they developed a plan to help farming families produce food on their small land holdings for family consumption and to sell into the local market as an additional source of income. As Peyser explains, the strategy was simple: provide small-scale farmers with the tools and knowledge they need to grow additional products with good returns, and farmers will have resources to meet their basic needs, and invest in their coffee.

“This work requires time, has a longer-term and more sustainable impact than merely helping farmers invest in expanding their coffee production, which still leaves farmers livelihoods in the hands of one of the world’s largest commodity markets with its volatile price swings,” Peyser says.

In 2013 alone, GMCR’s programs helped improve the livelihoods of over 800,000 individuals in the company’s supply chain.

“My work at GMCR as director of social advocacy and supply chain community outreach has been my favorite role to date,” Peyser says. “Helping coffee farmers improve their livelihoods has been extremely satisfying to me.  Over the years I have also enjoyed serving on the Board of Directors of the SCAA and as its president, the Board of Directors of Food4Farmers, Pueblo a Pueblo, Fundacion Ixil, Coffee Kids, and the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO).

“One of the greatest challenges I faced in my most recent role was helping senior management understand the importance of listening to farmers carefully to understand their needs, and to design programs from the ground-up that would benefit farmers, their families, and the company over the long-term,” Peyser says. “The temptation is often to invest in projects that have a shorter return on investment, however I have learned that it is unrealistic to expect long-term impact from short-term investments.  It doesn’t help farming families over the long term, then it is not a wise use of precious resources.”

Peyser explains that Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has always been focused on innovation and growing its business, but doing so in a way that was good for its business, its employees, and for the communities where it worked.  The long-term commitment the company once had to invest five percent of its pre-tax earnings in community projects (local and supply chain) provided many benefits to these communities, and to the company itself.  It positioned the company as one that had strong values that were motivating to customers, consumers, and employees.  This approach to business, when combined with focus on developing innovative products, led to the company’s high level of success.

“The industry has taught me a tremendous amount,” Peyser says. “What has been most inspirational to me has been the tenacity and endurance of small-scale coffee farming families, who produce an amazing product in the face of incredible challenges, including the impacts of climate change, pests, la roya, as well as the lack of access to nutritious food, clean water, educational opportunities, and more. Despite it all, they continue to provide so many of us in the industry with our own livelihoods and do so in a way that demonstrates their own strong values and their own joy of life.”

Peyser believes that Keurig Green Mountain and many companies in the industry will continue to enjoy great success.  At the same time, the industry is facing unprecedented impacts from challenges like climate change, youth migration from the coffeelands, and the symptoms of persistent poverty.

“We will prevail if we work together to face these challenges by investing now, in a serious manner, in long-term, sustainable solutions,” Peyser says. “I plan to remain very active in the work I have been engaged in for many years—helping coffee farming families develop the tools they need to succeed and thrive in an industry that is facing unprecedented opportunities and challenges.”

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