Phillip Di Bella

_CFJ2368_PPFor this barista-turned-BRW Rich Lister, the goal was not only getting to the top, but staying there.

When people ask me what business I’m in, I don’t say the coffee business, I say it’s the people business. That’s the one thing people get wrong. When I started Di Bella Coffee in 2002, I would ask what could be done to improve coffee. First, people would say, “I would love to be able to drink coffee and not put sugar in it”, and second, “I find coffee tastes too milky”. I found over the years the common denominator of failure is usually the result of poor communication. Asking those questions back then was all about communication and listening. Now we’re famous for a cup of coffee that tastes like coffee, not milk, and importantly, our coffee doesn’t need sugar. That’s the key to a successful business—communication.

I was born in 1975 in Brisbane, a son of migrants. I was the youngest of three children and had a good, solid upbringing with strong work ethics and principles, such as those learnt by hanging around people smarter than you, which I still live by. I studied a commerce degree at Griffith University majoring in marketing, HR and retailing. I am more of an audio-visual learner so uni wasn’t really my thing, but I persevered. I wanted to give up 100 times but didn’t, and thank God, because at the age of 36, I was made one of the youngest adjunct professors in the country. I had won the alumni year award because they sawI had gone on to great success and they wanted me to help inspire others, which is one of my passions.

When my wife and I set up Di Bella Coffee, we started with $5000. I had the house paid off at the age of 26, but I didn’t want to risk it. People ask me how to start a business and I say it’s about having a risk management plan and getting comfortable with your worst-case scenario. In other words, make sure you’re comfortable with the worst possible thing that can happen. Mine was losing $5000, rather than my house, and if it fell apart, I’d
go and work for someone else—no big deal.

When we started, we were at the Jan Power’s Farmers Markets at three o’clock every Saturday morning, and then on the Sunday we did the Chandler Markets [now in Capalaba]. We were working seven days a week. People who are successful have one major trait—they form habits of doing things that other people aren’t prepared to do. You talk to cafe owners today and they say, “No, I don’t work Saturday and Sunday”.

In the early days, we wanted to be a company known for quality and one that helped cafe owners make money. That was our vision: to create the ultimate coffee experience for customers, cafe owners and for consumers to enjoy their coffee. We wanted to take coffee and make it an experience rather than a beverage that you put in your mouth. Today we supply more than 1000 stores Australia-wide. We have ten espresso shops under the Di Bella brand in India. We’re also in New Zealand, Manila, Bali and Norfolk Island.

What all this growth has taught me is make sure the back-end meets the front-end. When the business went gangbusters in 2008 – 2009, our accounting system couldn’t handle it. We should have paid more attention to it so it happened smoothly. Also, I think it’s important to have a vision of where you want to be when you’re growing because without staying true to the brand, you’re nothing.

One thing I have seen change over the years is the consumer’s palate. People are demanding stronger, bolder coffees. We’re also seeing a decline of instant coffee. When I started in the industry in 1993, about 80 per cent of people were drinking it. The latest figures show it’s just more than 50 per cent.

As for rewards and recognition, numbers don’t really matter to me—my motto has always been to have enough money to do what I want, when I want. But to get on BRW’s Young Rich List was aspirational and drove me because once you’re on the list, you want to stay there. For me, however, that sense of achievement is part of the journey, not the destination. It’s always about asking what’s next.

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