Secrets of Success: Les Mills, Chairman, Masteroast

Les Mills

With a prolific career originating in commodity (sugar) trading in the City of London, then a senior role within Calypsa Coffee Co Ltd, Les took his experience and used it wisely …

He is now the Chairman and co-founder of Ecobev Ltd, forerunner of Masteroast Coffee Co Ltd. He speaks to Business Matters …

What products or services do you provide?

Masteroast is the UK’s only dedicated coffee roaster, blender and packer of private label coffees, serving the breadth of the catering, retail, and wider coffee industry including other roasters.

What type of businesses do you work with?

As specialist, bespoke, private label coffee roasters and packers, our market is spread over several sectors – notably wholesale distributors serving every sector of the out-of-home market including coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, institutional caterers, etc. Likewise, we produce a range of retail private label roasted coffee products for several leading UK supermarket chains and online/e-commerce brands.

Due to our all-encompassing range of roasting and packaging formats, we are the go-to outsourced roaster-packer for the wider coffee trade, including other roasters in the UK and across 15 other countries.

What problem does your company solve?

We provide solutions for just about everything required within our marketsfully bespoke products, customer branding and packaging for all enterprises – from the largest UK supermarket to “Mamma and Pappa” sized distributors and e-sales traders.

We almost certainly offer the largest range of coffee origins in Europe, bespoke coffee blending and blend matching, as well as a graphic design department for all packaging needs.

ISURUS, our sister distribution and logistics company, can store, pick and dispatch customer products which allows us to offer a discrete delivery service directly to our customers’ customers, without our name being on the delivery note.

What is your USP?

Our USP is having no brand identity of our own. Instead, we produce brands exclusively for our customers, meaning our success is dependent on theirs. It’s a uniquely symbiotic business concept.

What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so, how have you dealt with it?

Apart from the obvious ethical needs of any business, due to the nature of how we trade our inherent values are the promise of utmost flexibility and a total focus on each customer’s individual needs.

We are fully committed to sustainability and are the only roaster in the UK with energy efficient catalytic converters on the coffee roasting exhaust systems. We are innovators in recyclable and compostable packaging, have on-site nitrogen generation and re-use roaster energy to aid the heating of our office space.

In the early nineties I worked with the then head of the Fairtrade Foundation to pioneer and formulate a regulatory system for non-retail, out of home coffee products and at Masteroast, we remain promoters of Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance and Certified Organic coffees – all of which helps to support and drive a circular economy throughout the supply chain, whilst being better for the environment.

How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?

Whenever possible we recruit via recommendations from existing employees and through trade recommendations – people that already know and understand our values.

For the most part, we are approached by people who already know of us and are attracted by our values and reputation.

We also employ some agency staff to supplement our regular production team due to fluctuating production needs. We see this as a great opportunity to nurture new talent and have an arrangement with the agency whereby after three months of employment we invite any rising stars to join our staff permanently.

Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?

We happily offer a hybrid working model, however, due to the nature of our business, this is role dependant as many aspects of work in the roastery simply cannot be undertaken remotely.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

We see our customers as friends – both customers and suppliers are a key part of any business and so we encourage our team to understand the importance of nurturing these relationships.

Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?

Cash flow is at the core of any business and must be controlled right from the start. Whilst this is no secret, many businesses have floundered – particularly in the early stages – simply by ignoring this fact.

We were fortunate to learn this at a very early stage of our business, and had it not been for somebody being extremely forthright with us at that time, we wouldn’t be lucky enough to now be approaching our fortieth year of trading.

For a new business just starting out, it’s worth looking at what services are offered by suppliers that can help mitigate cash flow pressures. For example, as an outsourced service, Masteroast assumes the fixed cost elements of sourcing raw materials, production, warehousing, distribution and much, much more. This guiding principle has enabled our customers to remain lean, flexible, and navigate successfully during the last 40 years of both good and bad economic times.

Whilst the last 18 months have been painful for all businesses, our ‘overhead lean’ customers have remained fiscally well positioned, ready to attack the post-pandemic world.

If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?

The obvious one for us is to stop creating more and more bureaucracy and unnecessary legislation.

The government promised a post-Brexit bonfire of form-filling, but politicians are congenitally conditioned to create more and more rules, regulation and control. Businessmen and women know how business works, not politicians.

Good businesses know how to treat their workers; those that don’t will lose good staff, fail to recruit the best people, and consequently be unlikely to prosper.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

Respect your competitors – they are the best touchstone for any business.

Ask yourself if there is a competitor who does business better than you. If the honest answer is yes; look at what makes them better, emulate what they do, and then try to do it better.

Unusually in Masteroast’s case, many of our competitors are also a major part of our market. Thanks to our continual investment in new plant to keep up to date with the latest industry innovations, our competitors come to us to produce products they don’t have the ability to produce themselves.

Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?

As we approach our 40th anniversary our goal is to remain an independent family business, maintain the consistent growth that we have attained during the previous forty years and quite simply, to remain the best private label coffee roaster in the world.

Cherry Martin

Cherry Martin

Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.
Cherry Martin

Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.