Smooth operator

 

FRIDAY INTERVIEW/DARCY WILLSON-RYMER managing director, Starbucks UK & Ireland:HE DESCRIBES himself as “an Americano drinker”, but this being Starbucks, it’s not quite as simple as that. Darcy Willson-Rymer’s favourite order is the Arabian Mocha Sanani but, as that’s hard to get, he sometimes opts for an Ethiopian organic Yirgacheffe.

The managing director of Starbucks UK Ireland is in Dublin ahead of the Seattle coffee chain’s annual global results, which were, it transpired, frothily good. Fourth-quarter sales percolated to a record for the company that “effectively created the speciality coffee industry”. Profits for its full 2010 fiscal year up 153 per cent on just a 10 per cent gain in sales.

In Ireland, too, consumers’ recessionary distaste for lifestyle caffeine appears to have been temporary. Having closed five cafes in the Republic last year, same-store sales have been back in the black for the last two quarters, says Willson-Rymer.

We meet in the one of Starbucks’ remaining 22 cafes in the Republic at College Green in Dublin, where we are surrounded by two geeks on wifi-availing laptops and a quartet of armchair students shooting the mid-morning breeze – typical Starbucks customers, in other words, who would presumably have little truck with the numerous people who informed me both before and after this interview that they disliked Starbucks’ coffee and found it to be over-priced. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

The steady stream of customers asking Willson-Rymer via his Twitter feed (@starbucksukmd) when “the red cups” – Starbucks’ Christmas season drinks – are coming out are also, presumably, fans. My friend’s a big Gingerbread Latte fan, I tell him.

“He’ll have to wait until next week to find out whether we’re bringing Gingerbread Lattes back,” he says. (There was a customer poll to choose four varieties of “red cups”. The latte made the cut, but the Dark Cherry Mocha, “a low seller”, did not.)

“Occasionally you have a busy day, which is most days, and at the end of the day, you catch up on the questions people have asked,” says Willson-Rymer of Twitter.

“Did you go back further? Did you read any of my Tanzania posts?” he asks.

“We took a group of Starbuck partners, so I posted a few photographs of the things we did there,” he says, enthused.

“Partners” in this instance means Starbuck’s staff – store managers, supervisors, baristas – who were brought onto the Fairtrade farms to look at how the new water tanks are doing and talk to Starbucks’ in-house agronomists.

Willson-Rymer himself has been the beneficiary of Starbucks’ training schedule. When he joined three years ago, he was sent to Seattle for a three-month induction, which included a month spent learning to be a barista.

His knowledge of coffee surfaces when we discuss the micro-grinding techniques of Starbucks Via, the queue-dispatching instant coffee that’s “almost a perfect match to filter coffee” and will be launched in Irish stores next year.

“One of our favourite things we like to do as a family is go camping,” he says. “But my wife gets quite upset if I take a cafetiere.”

A “flat white” is not simply the Australian version of the Americano (or just regular white coffee in pre-Noughties language), he corrects me.

“There’s a science behind steaming the milk. What you do is you get the air bubbles in the milk quite tight, so you get a much more velvety feel, something that’s – the Australians will kill me for saying this – something that’s a cross between a latte and a cappuccino, but much stronger and creamier.”

Starbucks has as many imitators as it has detractors, although not all of the former have had the act of visiting their chains transformed into a verb. (You will find “Starbucking” in the Urban Dictionary.)

But the company, which started out as the type of independent coffeehouse it is now accused of obliterating, has been in retrenchment of late.

Due to a combination of consumer cent-saving and over-franchising, Starbucks closed 600 cafes last year, with the cost savings leaving its global chief executive, Howard Schultz, looking pretty smart.

The five that shut down in the Republic were largely the result of the company “opening at the beginning of the cycle”, which is to say that it raised the shutters before the office blocks and apartment complexes had been populated.

“As meltdown happened, we had a group of stores where, given the time, we were probably in a little too early,” admits Willson-Rymer.

Now two years into his current position, he says decisions taken two years ago “informs our results now”, although Starbucks doesn’t break out separate numbers for its Irish operation, so it’s hard to tell how spectacular or otherwise they were.

“We will grow in this market. We are here for the long term,” he says. “I don’t want to necessarily say it will be in this quarter.”

Starbucks’ more faux-rustic new store design will soon arrive in Ireland, but it’s “absolutely not” getting rid of the armchairs, Willson-Rymer assures.

I feel cheated when they’re all occupied, I say.

“It’s a difficult balance between having enough seats and having comfortable seats,” he says, sagely.

He now identifies himself as British, but Willson-Rymer was born in Canada and moved to South Africa at the age of eight. He left school at 16 after his father died and went travelling in Europe aged 18.

“I came to the UK and I ran out of money, so I got a job in Pizza Hut as a waiter and I worked my way up, staying with the company for 19 years.”

The company in question is not just Pizza Hut, but its owner, Yum! brands, which also owns KFC and Taco Bell, and Willson-Rymer ascended to the post of head of franchising operations for Europe. He also spent three years working for Unilever Ventures, a venture capital arm of the consumer goods group.

But the allure of the Americano was always there, which he attributes to a barista named Annalisa at his local Starbucks.

“I once went on holiday and when I came back, she said they were worried about me. ’Why didn’t you tell us?’ And my response was, I felt bad. I didn’t think, ‘who are you to ask me this?’”

He’s in no rush to move on again. “I’ve got the best job in the entire company. It’s a privilege, because they’re very important markets, Ireland and the UK, and they’re also cities, Dublin and London, that inform cultures, so it’s a great place to be.”

He says he tries to maintain a “reasonable” work-life balance now.

“It’s important for two reasons: for my family and my sanity, and because it’s important to set the example for everybody else in the company that you need to also have a life outside.

“I probably still work more than my wife would like, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a saint, because I’m not. I’m sure I’m a bad husband.”

When he’s home, he’s really home though. “It’s rare that I would get my laptop out,” he says.

“I joke that as a father I have three functions – chef, chauffeur and banker.”

And part-time barista, of course.

ON THE RECORD

Position: Managing director, Starbucks Coffee Company UK & Ireland.

Age: 44.

Background and career: He was born in Toronto, Canada, and moved to South Africa at the age of eight. He arrived in the UK aged 18 and worked for Yum! brands for 19 years and Unilever for three years. He joined the Europe, Middle East and Africa division of Starbucks in 2007 before taking on his current role in August 2008.

Family: He lives in Bracknell, outside London, with wife Sue and their two children.

Interests: Cooking, camping, chauffeuring his kids.

Something you might expect: He seems quite alert.

Something that might surprise: He says he “always knew” he would work for Starbucks.