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LAND OF MILK AND HONEY

Rocket Espresso

Words: James Gurr
Interview with: Andrew Meo
Photography: Amy Taylor

In 2006, my friend and mentor, Andrew Meo, offered me the opportunity to get involved in the opening of a small Wellington coffee roastery. Having worked for Andrew for years, I knew the project would be well considered, well executed and that I would have the opportunity to learn a lot. We worked side by side for three years and I learnt about brands, design, small business and most importantly, coffee. 10 years later, Andrew lives in Crema, Italy where he owns a world leading espresso machine company, Rocket Espresso. Meanwhile, I relocated to London and manage the global brand for Ozone Coffee Roasters. Today, Rocket Espresso is one of our espresso machine partners and I am proud to be working with Andrew again. I caught up with Andrew recently and discussed, business in foreign markets, cycling, coffee machines, and what drew him to back to his father’s homeland, Italy - the land of milk and honey!

Why Italy? Why coffee machines?

Maybe it was my heritage (my father was Italian), maybe it was my dream to leave New Zealand on an adventure and live in Italy, maybe it was a fascination with coffee roasting that began in 1992, or maybe it was a dissatisfaction with the first ‘espresso machine’ I ever owned that lead me to Italy and producing espresso machines.

Growing up, despite only my father being Italian, we had a very strong Italian culture in our home, from my father’s strong Italian accent, to the food we ate. I had spent a year in Italy cycle racing when I was 20 and then returned some years later on several family holidays. I was enamoured by the country and began wondering how it would be possible to live there. At that time, Milan was to me what New York is to many other people – I just needed to find the catalyst that would enable us to live there.

In the midst of all this, I purchased my first home espresso machine. It was chrome and beautifully polished, and in those days a massive spend. Tragically, it was a very average experience. In 1995, I was introduced to a machine made by Italian company ECM. The Giotto, a domestic espresso machine that finally delivered, and I guess that’s where it all began.

Some 12 years later, my friend Jeff Kennedy and I heard that the Italian producer was in financial trouble, so I got on a plane to Milan to see if we could somehow secure the rights to build the machines I had grown to love.

I was possibly a little naive at the time as to just what a massive task it would be taking a failed brand and trying to turn it around. While the product was good, other manufacturers were now building products just as good and, through the financial decline of ECM, a number of bridges had been burned so our ‘potential’ distributor base was greatly diminished.

Additionally, I think many people thought we would be incapable of turning the brand around. After all, what did a guy from New Zealand know about manufacturing in Italy, let alone espresso machines? But by believing in the machine, and understanding its potential with a vision as to how we would market it throughout the world, I was confident we could be successful.

 

You’ve owned a mechanic’s workshop, a coffee roastery, a restaurant, and a business that makes espresso machines. How has this diversity shaped your approach to business?

I feel that most great businesses share a common platform, that is the delivery of a great customer experience. All of my businesses – a workshop specialising in the maintenance of exotic cars, a coffee roastery, a restaurant business and now Rocket Espresso manufacturing espresso machines – are based on my philosophy of just trying to deliver something really great to the customer in terms of product and service. The diversity of the businesses I have been involved in has given me a greater understanding of issues and the ability to look at them from various perspectives.

All the businesses we have had are intelligibly linked. The workshop has given me a greater understanding of engineering, and I have applied this to manufacturing processes, techniques and machine design at Rocket Espresso. Coffee roasting has enabled me to understand how a good coffee should taste and what the machine needs to deliver. The restaurant industry really taught me customer service. From operating a busy espresso station in a restaurant, I got an appreciation for the ergonomics of a well designed espresso machine and barista station. All of that brings you to our current business, the espresso machine.

 

What was the biggest challenge in moving from running a business in New Zealand to one in Italy?

I opened my first business when I was 21. Then, compliance was a smaller part of the operation of a business, but globally it’s now a large part of the operation of most businesses. Many people think of the Italian bureaucratic system and throw their hands in the air, but in my opinion, it’s not so different to the system we conform to in New Zealand – it’s just in a different language!

Possibly the bigger challenge relates to the way people work in different countries. The Italians are fantastic workers, they have a high attention to detail, they are incredibly loyal to the company they work for, and there is very little staff turnover. However, they look at problems very differently from New Zealanders. From my point of view, New Zealanders apply a massive amount of common sense to a problem. I wonder if this is due to the fact that New Zealand is a young country, so New Zealanders needed to be adaptable, whereas the Italian culture is so old and seeped in tradition that there is not as much need to be flexible. Great businesses need flexibility, so I need the people that work for Rocket Espresso to be flexible and open minded about all aspects of the business.

I am extremely fortunate to have an excellent business partner here. His skills are those that are my weaknesses. I think it’s important for me to understand what I do well and what he does better.

 

You were very much an outsider taking ownership of an existing business. How did you approach change management at Rocket Espresso, both at a strategic and operational level?

In 2007, we bought the rights from a failing company to build the domestic machines they were producing. With those rights came a set of drawings, nothing more, so we were starting from scratch – just two of us in a tiny office. Really there was no business to change, so it was not like ‘Here’s Andrew, the new foreign boss from New Zealand!’ From the first day, I approached things the way I had always approached business in New Zealand, perhaps because I know of no other way.

I have tried to create a more global approach to business rather than an Italian approach to business, meaning we need to think like an international company and not like an Italian company. There are subtle but important differences, such as customer expectations. Italians are more relaxed in business than in many other countries, so we need Rocket Espresso staff to understand how our customers may think in the US or Korea and to be responsive to their needs. The staff in the factory need to understand the customer expectation that comes with producing a premium handmade product. Once that is understood, it’s easy, as they know just how good each and every machine needs to be.

 

"with a Rocket Espresso machine in your kitchen you will be faster #fact”

Traditionally, Rocket Espresso built machines for the domestic market, but it now produces commercial machines. Did the move into the commercial market require a shift in mindset?

The ‘premium’ domestic espresso machine category is a very small category worldwide. It is a good market, but a very small market. Moving into commercial machine production in 2012 allowed us to start developing a more balanced business, which is less reliant on a very small market segment.

As a brand, we tried to apply the same principles to the commercial machine portfolio as we had achieved with the domestic category: we wanted to produce beautiful and contemporary designed machines, that made perfect espresso. However, having an excellent reputation for building great domestic machines did not open doors in the commercial market, which in comparison is a very difficult market to succeed in. Rocket Espresso was possibly the first manufacturer to be 100% committed to building domestic machines, so we were fortunate to be able to have a good market penetration in that market very early on. The commercial market is very different, as the sales channel is based on a lot of historic agreements between manufacturers and distributors, making it very difficult to break into the market.

In order to establish our brand as a viable and interesting option, we had to create a desirable machine. That meant utilising the latest technologies so that we were seen as being credible in what we were producing. Rocket Espresso does not have 100 years of history as do many other manufacturers in the industry, which means we have to justify to potential dealers that we are very capable of producing a high performance product. Our commercial programme is tracking in line with our expectations. We are constantly refining the product and will continue to foster future dealer relationships in order to grow this part of the company.

 

Rocket Espresso has a strong association with road cycling #rocketsmakeyoufaster How does this alignment support the brand positioning?

In 2009, when the business was very new, I suggested that we produce a machine to commemorate 100 years of the Giro d’Italia cycle race. Given we are an Italian brand, and the numerous synergies that exist with coffee and cycling, it made sense to me that we offered a limited edition of 100 machines to celebrate 100 years of this historical race.
The 100 machines were built with pink gauges (the leader’s jersey of the Giro is pink) and we hand engraved the winner of each edition on the side panel, including the 2009 winner. The machines were sold within hours of release which really surprised me. They have also since become collectable, which is an immense source of satisfaction to me.

This was the start of our association with the sport of cycling. A number of the top professional cyclists then contacted us to get a machine, and this initiated what I call (tongue-in-cheek) our “brand ambassador programme”. There are now around 80 of the top professional cyclists in the world using, and promoting our brand through their social media channels. When one of ‘our’ riders wins, we post the victory with the line “with a Rocket Espresso machine in your kitchen you will be faster #fact”. It’s a bit of fun and the riders are now getting into it.

My passion for cycling has possibly led us to be a little top-heavy in our cycling-based marketing. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When you enjoy something so much, and manage to get some great opportunities as a result of that, it’s hard not to get enthusiastic!

 

What does the future hold for the Rocket Espresso family?

The future for Rocket Espresso is for us to keep doing what we do, but to continually try to fine tune and improve the business. For us, it’s not all about the margin we make, it’s about how good a machine we are able to build! There are so many small areas of the machine that cost us margin. It’s the sum of all those little things that make our machines what they are, and more importantly give us the satisfaction of knowing we have tried as hard as we can to build the best machine we can.