MOVE FORWARD: How A Crazy Supermarket Strategy Made Vittoria One Of Australia's Biggest Coffee Brands

MOVE FORWARD is a series outlining the approaches of successful leaders to taking a business strategy on paper and making it a commercial reality. You’ll find links to more articles at the foot of the post.

Les Schirato, who began working for Vittoria, the company his family now run aged 16

You could blame Australia’s national obsession with coffee on Les Schirato.

As CEO of Vittoria Coffee, the country’s leading pure coffee brand, he’s the brains behind more than 1.6 million cups of coffee consumed daily in cafes, restaurants and homes.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a family-owned company started by the Cantarella Brothers in 1947, to give expat Europeans a taste of home.

The company began roasting coffee in Australia in 1958 believing fresh was best.

Now Vittoria Coffee is served in some of Australia’s best restaurants, from Neil Perry’s Rockpool group to Tetsuya’s, Attica, Flower Drum and Bistro Guillaume. It has captured around a third of the bean coffee market.

Schirato is a wiry, energetic man with an easy warmth. He loves the hospitality industry and enjoys it regularly too. He’s generous in his support for a range of charities, something acknowledged when he was made a Member of the Order Australia in 2008.

As well as the Vittoria and Caffe Aurora coffee brands, Vittoria’s catalogue ranges from mineral water to tea, gelato, fruit nectars, olive oil, vinegars and cheeses.

Schirato began working there at age 16, more than four decades ago. He had a five-year hiatus in the 70s before returning in 1981, using his sales and marketing skills to create the home ground coffee market in Australia in an era when most people drank instant.

His genius was targeting supermarkets with his product, a strategy many in the industry regarded as foolhardy at the time. It became a game-changer.

Schirato became managing director in 1993 and subsequently turned Vittoria into a food and beverage powerhouse at the top of the coffee tree. He’s married to Luisa Cantarella, daughter of the company’s founders and their son, Rolando, is now in his father’s old role as general manager of sales and marketing.

Together, father and son pulled off a major marketing coup four years ago when they approached Al Pacino to star in a Vittoria Coffee campaign, despite knowing the Oscar-winner didn’t do commercials.

They appealed Pacino’s Italian heritage with their own family’s story of Sicilians who created a successful new life in Australia. It struck a chord.

Rain Man director Barry Levinson shot the commercial. There was no script. Pacino spoke from the heart, talking about his grandfather introducing him to coffee in the South Bronx at age five.

Schirato still pinches himself the New York superstar came on board to endorse an Australian business.

There have been battles along the way, such as a two-year trademark battle with a rival coffee importer, which Vittoria won.

Australian-born Schirato admits he wasn’t particularly scholarly, having joined the company while still at school. His grounding in business didn’t come from books. He preferred to take the best lessons from his various mentors and combine them to create his own approach.

The surprise for a company with turnover above $220 million is that there’s no formal strategic planning document outlining direction.

“We prefer an agile approach to working towards our key objectives,” Schirato explains.

There is a plan, reviewed monthly, at a minimum, but, he adds “the best laid strategies need constant revision to adjust to changes within the business as well as the market”.

The key to a good growth strategy is understanding which opportunities are the most critical to long-term success, then evaluating their potential profitability and ease of execution within the business model, Schirato says.

While board, senior management and branch meetings are key to the decision-making at Vittoria, 30-minute project work-in-progress (WIP) meetings are essential to success “to ensure we are on track to meet timelines and adequate direction is given”.

“We try to keep most WIP meeting to under 30 minutes and are always clear on follow up actions, accountabilities and timing,” the man dubbed “The Coffee King” says.

Senior management team meets formally weekly and business activity is reviewed by department.

Among Schirato’s many accolade was 2001 entrepreneur of the year and in 2009 the company was named Woolworths supplier of the year, the culmination of years of collaborations with supermarket giant.

The boss says he has regular moments when he realises how far the company has come, such as the new $20 million roasting facility opened by then-PM John Howard in 2007.

“In 1972 we had a $2 million turnover and today we turnover $220 million,” he says.

“More recently, we were reviewing the historical performance of our mineral water brand, Santa Vittoria, which I managed many years ago. We saw huge growth and are now Australia’s number one imported sparking mineral water brand in grocery.”

So how does Schirato grapple with keeping the family feel in what is now a major company with more than 250 employees?

“Building a culture takes a long time and is constantly under threat as your business grows.

“Maintaining a culture is heavily reliant on the consistency of senior management and maintaining low staff turnover coupled with a recruitment philosophy that places significant importance on candidates displaying core values that the company deems are essential to its culture. We find this particularly important in a family business our size,” he said.

Vittoria is careful about who and how they hire in an exhaustive process.

“We don’t make excuses to candidates for numerous rounds of interviews and reference checks,” Schirato says. “Recruitment is primarily an internal process, and is the responsibility of the managers in those areas. Maintaining target levels on key KPI’s such as revenue per employee and profit per employee as well as ensuring hiring is taking place in areas critical to achieving our corporate objectives.”

So how does he ensure everyone is on track?

“There are a lot of levels and different activities associated with how we manage our teams and stay close to activity in the business.

“Everyone in the business adheres to a process of objectives and achievement reviews on a monthly basis, which tie into their department objectives.”

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