As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Wallace.
Lee Wallace is the owner and Queen Bean of Peace Coffee, a company on a mission to craft a delicious coffee experience with communities around the globe. A rare CEO whose area of expertise resides in, in her words, “that intersection between mission and money,” she is a sought-after writer and speaker as well as a recognized leader and expert in multiple fields: social enterprise businesses, fair trade enterprises, and specialty coffee importers. Lee sits on the Research Advisory Council for the Specialty Coffee Association and holds active leadership roles in the Climate Collaborative, and the B Corps movement. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling to new places, puttering around in her garden and hanging out with her dogs Ruby and Felix.
Based in the heart of Minneapolis, Peace Coffee has been proudly roasting, pedaling and brewing outstanding coffee since 1996. Under Lee’s leadership the company has garnered local, national and international recognition — from being named one of the 10 Most Sustainable Coffee Businesses in the U.S. by Civil Eats, to earning the Best Coffee Roaster title by Minnesota Monthly and Growler magazines, to being recognized as one of the top places to work by Minnesota Business Magazine. The company has also been honored with list placements on Best for the World, Community, B Corp, 2018 and 2019; Ten Most Sustainable U.S. Coffee Businesses; and Most Ethical Coffee Companies, Fair World Project.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in upstate New York. My first foray into entrepreneurship was driving an ice cream truck in high school. I learned a lot about inventory, cash flow and developing relationships with your customers. For example, I had one customer who wanted me to give her dog an ice cream bar every day, and she would pay me on Fridays; I learned that going the extra mile can really cement a relationship.
I got my start at Peace Coffee as a consultant. The former owners of Peace Coffee brought me in to help them develop a business plan and assist them with developing a vision for the business. I fell in love with the place right away; its mission, its clarity of purpose and conviction that all decisions should be made with an eye to always demonstrate that we are truly a business that is “In It For Good”. So I stayed on as CEO for 12 years and grew the business until I purchased it in May 2018.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many. The board chair of the organization that I purchased Peace Coffee from, Pam Saunders, springs to mind. She and I negotiated the sale of the business from the previous owners to me and we set out to do it in a friendly and non-adversarial way that benefited everyone as much as possible. We succeeded and developed a deep trust during the process.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
From day one we have been very clear our main purpose is to buy as much fair trade and organic coffee as possible from small-scale coffee farmers. However, we also want to be authentic in our commitment to being a purpose-driven business — and that means always honoring our commitment to our community, our employees and the planet as we pursue our mission.
Our story begins with farmers. Our founding nonprofit, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, began with a mission to help American farmers during the family farm crisis of the mid-1980s. That mission grew to include a vision for expansion to other countries with rich farming roots to see how they could best partner and advocate for long-term systemic change and, ultimately, commodity-farmer profitability.
Today, Peace Coffee is a mid-sized regional roaster serving the upper Midwest from our roastery in south Minneapolis. We serve a variety of wholesale customers from food co-ops and grocers to independent cafes and colleges predominantly in the upper Midwest. Our staff members are dedicated to making a daily impact while our coffee impacts mornings across the country.
We’re starry-eyed dreamers who believe in bicycle-power, being nice and bringing neighbors, farmers, and the community together. We believe that collaboration works wonders and that passion, honesty, and a really great cup of coffee can make the world a better place. And when that coffee is sustainably grown and freshly roasted to bring out the best in every bean, well, that’s when the real magic happens.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This year has been an exercise in leading during uncertain times. First, we had the pandemic — the key there was to be decisive, transparent and empathetic. We sent anyone who didn’t have to work on-site home, and we communicated to our other employees who still work on-site that we have a safety plan. Understandably, people had a lot of feelings and concerns and we needed to create space for dialogue. The more people can understand the whys behind your decision making, the better.
Peace Coffee is in Minneapolis and our roasting facility is just a stone’s throw from the now-infamous Third Precinct that housed the officer who killed George Floyd. Most of the buildings around us were burned to the ground during the civil unrest that gripped the city in late May. It was an extremely difficult time for employees and also an unprecedented time to be a leader. I needed to make lots of decisions about the business (How do we keep coffee going out the door? When is it safe to bring employees back? How do we communicate to consumers about what is happening?) and also check in with employees to see how they were holding up.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Honestly, I am fortunate I’ve had more victories than losses. I also am not failure adverse. I just keep trying. Generally, I find that if you take a failure and look at it a different way you can turn it into something new. A new idea, a pivot, a different direction. You just have to have a positive attitude.
Peace Coffee has tremendous continued opportunity for growth. What started as a handful of Minneapolis co-ops getting beans delivered by bike has grown into a regional brand selling fresh roasted fair trade organic coffee into more than 1000 retail locations across 11 states and thousands of online customers.
Our tagline ‘In It For Good’ perfectly encapsulates our desire to forge lasting, beneficial partnerships with farmer cooperatives and our community as well as our desire to bring good to morning mugs across our region. As a B Corporation, we also wanted to infuse their core message of using business as a force for good into our DNA as a coffee company that aims to support farmers, empower staff members, and delight customers.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communicating what the future looks like to the extent you are able. Understanding that while leaders deal with a lot of uncertainty all the time, many of your employees don’t. I try and remind myself that while I don’t need a lot of context to operate, and I can just sort of feel my way toward the future, that’s really challenging for others. Tell people what you know and what you don’t and how you are going to approach the challenges.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
A leader should help people maintain their connection to the broader purpose of the company, to help them see the bigger picture and the role they can have in helping the company fulfill its mission. I think it’s important to realize people are facing a lot of uncertainty in many different areas of their life, and I’ve found a lot of checking in to see how people are doing and being a good listener goes a long way.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Clearly, honestly and directly. Leaders should take accountability for difficult news, and be open to listening after the news is delivered.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The reality is a plan is out of date as soon as it is written even in predictable times. Focus on what you do know instead of worrying about what you don’t know. Use data as much as possible and avoid using anecdotes. Determine what’s changed for your customer? How can you respond? What are other companies working in your space doing? What changes are likely to endure post-pandemic?
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“This too shall pass”. That applies to both the ups and downs, unfortunately.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
It can be a natural tendency to isolate yourself when the going gets tough. My personal perspective is when things are hard you need to tell people. Sometimes just to get support but also to learn from others about how they are handling things. I have gotten all sorts of business ideas from talking to other CEOs, even during the pandemic. Ideas that have grown our business.
Second, realize that you have to keep lots of options open. Don’t let yourself get tunnel vision. You need to keep scanning the field looking for opportunity.
Last but not least, be thoughtful about how you are showing up. If you are exhausted, frazzled and unfocused you are modeling that for everyone around you. The more methodical you can be the better.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Peace Coffee is in a lucky position because we had placed our bets in all the right places in our growth plan. We quickly realized that people aren’t going to be drinking less coffee — they are just drinking coffee in different places (as in at home as opposed to at work or in coffee shops). So we put all our effort into our grocery and e-commerce strategy. I can’t call it a total pivot because a lot of the infrastructure was in place. But when people started stocking up on groceries we had the shelves full. We also released a new 20 oz bag of coffee, realizing that people are going through more coffee at home so bigger bags would be a plus. We have plenty of capacity, with the installation of a new roaster this spring, and we have expanded to new markets like Chicago and Denver, and we’re selling more and more coffee online.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ve shared in my previous answers examples for each of these, but my top five things to do for leaders in uncertain times are:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
- Be self-aware, understanding your emotions will help you be a better leader
- Be decisive
- Stay flexible and open to unexpected opportunity
- Seek out conversation with other leaders
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you can’t fly then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote is a good reminder to me that adversity is just part of life. But you can’t let it stop you. It also reminds me that, by comparison to the struggles I have faced and will continue to face, they are minor in the grand scheme of things. To the extent that I can also be aware of the barriers that others face and work to break down those barriers as I build my business, my life will be richer for it.
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