Emily McIntyre, Co-Founder, Catalyst Trade
Company: Catalyst Trade
Location: Portland, Oregon USA, & Ethiopia
Sector: Green Coffee Importing and Exporting
tLBCC: What makes you choose to buy your coffee from one farm, farmer, or co-op in Ethiopia over another? What do they do, or can they do, to earn your trust?
Emily McIntyre: This is a really great question. Trust in business is a complex topic. It could be defined as:
Believing what people say about a scenario or topic without double-checking their statements.
Developing an emotional connection and shared experience with someone that enhances your working relationship.
The problem with the first definition is that we are dealing with cultural differences that can set us up for disappointment and feelings of betrayal. This isn’t just when working with people from other countries, but also people from other backgrounds and perspectives—actually, EVERYBODY will let us down at one point or another because all of us filter what we say through our personal viewpoints. That means that everything I say will be biased, whether intentionally or not.
This has personal ramifications, but when you add the risk of business, it’s a potentially explosive problem. For example: some cultures place a higher emphasis on pleasing than others. In the U.S., we tend to prefer what we call ‘truth telling’, or ‘calling things like they are.’ We value our partners telling us when they can’t do something, and we require notice in advance if a project is underfunded or failing or bumping into unexpected obstacles. In a more "people pleasing" culture, such as Ethiopia, it is rare to learn in advance that something isn’t working out. Coupled with a strong desire to please buyers by giving them what they want, there is a beautiful cultural faith that, if God allows, everything will work out. Thus, notification of problems often happens when the situation is critical. I personally have experienced a fair amount of anger and hurt due to this tendency, but it is at its core a cultural clash, not in most cases a betrayal or an intentional falsehood.
This leads to my current definition of trust in business: developing an emotional connection and shared experience with someone that enhances your working relationship.
When doing business, I am ultimately responsible for every decision I make, even the ones I didn’t consciously evaluate. Working in Ethiopia as the General Manager of Catalyst Trade, if I choose to ‘trust’ a partner without having systems and backups in place for contingencies and without asking around to verify the information I’m getting, I’m putting myself in the position of being unable to predict upcoming problems. This is a dynamic of working in Ethiopia. It’s not going to change; the best way for me to be both trustworthy and trusting is to assign trust its proper place in working relationships.
Though this personal definition will probably keep shifting and deepening, I currently am defining trust as growing an emotional connection with someone that makes it better to work together and gives hope that, as humans, we can bring mutual benefit to each other’s businesses and families.
I don’t check my caution at the door; naivety is NOT an attribute.
Trust develops when you spend time with people, when you go through hard and good things with them, and when you have mutual benefit from your partnerships. People earn my trust by being themselves with me and by delivering as promised. People undermine my trust when they present themselves as one thing, and deliver something else.
I consider it my due diligence to constantly be gathering new information, asking for verification, re-adjusting my understanding of relationships and projects, and learning from everyone around me. Doing business in a foreign-to-me country requires this kind of calm, gentle, forceful resolution. I need to be able to relax and allow people to be themselves without judgement, while still making solid business calls that protect the stakeholders impacted by Catalyst Trade.
Ultimately, what I look for in a partner is someone who does two things on a consistent basis: keeps their promises, and is human with me. With that kind of basis, we can accomplish an enormous amount of good work.
When evaluating the potential of a new sourcing relationship, we have a complex rubric that’s a mix of a solid assessment of the current acquisition and processing practices (seriously—we have a 4-page questionnaire we fill out for our first site visit!), the quality potential of the coffees, and our team readout on the trustworthiness of the individual(s). Sometimes everything seems right and goes badly for any number of reasons. We get excited when potential partners are themselves excited about working together and applying our stringent quality standards. We tend to start a relationship by purchasing a small lot and watching how everything plays out, and then adjusting from there.
Truthfully, a decade is much better than a year for developing trust. All relationships are a work in progress.
tLBCC: What steps do you take to build trust with your clients? How do you ensure they can rely on you and the coffee you are supplying them with from year to year?
Emily McIntyre: We strive to both develop an emotional connection with our customers AND deliver as promised on a consistent basis.
From a supply side, this looks like having the most stringent quality control standards we’ve ever seen, without fail, and the endless labor of developing quality relationships with producers and holding everyone accountable, including ourselves. For example, it is standard practice globally to pull representative samples from 10% of a commercial coffee lot, and 30% of a specialty lot. Usually in Ethiopia representative samples are either pulled from just a few bags of a lot, or are simply representative type lots, not even the actual purchased lot. Without fail, we ALWAYS pull from 100% of the actual lot. That’s a lot of bag stabbing, sample mixing, and extra work. We want true representative samples and no surprises down the line.
We also cup the coffees several times at every stage of their development, from the washing station—which we usually visit several times a year, and where we conduct trainings, presentations, and co-labor with the team—through the transport, warehouse, pre- and post-milling, and arrival. By the time a coffee arrives in a roaster’s warehouse, Michael and Zele have personally cupping this coffee dozens of time under a wide variety of conditions. We do that for every lot.
Another way we are working to build trust with our clients is to communicate with transparency about the costs of the coffees. We work with smart, passionate, and ethical roasters. They care a lot about how their coffee is sourced, and they are proud to work with a company like us that is Ethiopian-American owned and cares in the same way about ethical business practices. Starting with our 2019 crop coffees, we will be publishing a breakdown of the cost of every coffee—and we are asking our roaster partners to consider publishing similar transparency reports so we can all be held accountable for our impact at the origin and consuming country levels.
From the connection side, this looks like us working very hard to communicate through photos, written communications, and face to face why we are doing this hard work, and how partnering with Catalyst Trade benefits roasters who give a shit about their sourcing practices.
Michael and I travel with our daughter, Eire, who is currently almost 7, both to Ethiopia a lot and also to our customer’s homes, to public coffee events, and to trade shows when she’s allowed on the floor. Zelalem, our Ethiopian co-founder and Relationships Manager, has two boys around her age as well. We don’t just tell our customers we care about coffee as a real-life magical lever to change the world, we ACT that way.
We joke that all we have to do to sell coffee is to cut open our veins and see if roasters like our blood.
OK, it’s gruesome, but it touches on the whole ‘building an emotional connection’ thing. That willingness to be real and open, coupled with the legitimately outstanding coffees we source from actual documentable relationships means that our clients can trust us as their Ethiopian coffee supplier now and in the future.
Can you tell how proud I am of this amazing THING we are part of?
tLBCC: Do you have any other thoughts about building trust along the coffee supply chain?
Emily McIntyre: We need to be having these discussions more.
We need to be asking ourselves, why does trust matter?
What does trust look like to me? To my business?
Am I acting how I would myself define as trustworthy?
Am I working with partners I consider worthy of trust?
How am I making the world a better place to be able to trust people?
And lastly: trust takes time to build. It’s not an overnight thing. I can get a surge of emotional attachment with many people, but that connection has to be borne out over time, with partnerships that are mutually beneficial and develop better and better communication.
I’m committed to growing in my trustworthiness and also in continuing to seek out trustworthy partners, for the benefit of the coffee industry and my own well being.