THE venture into coffee production by Rohan Marley, son of reggae icon Bob Marley, appears to be paying dividends as his company seeks to give the Marley Coffee brand a global presence.
Speaking with Caribbean Business Report from the Bob Marley Museum where he has an operational base, Rohan Marley recounted the early years and how he broke into the coffee business.
Back in 1998 a Rastafarian friend of Marley's called him in New Jersey where he was living at the time, and offered to show him a 52-acre property in Portland, Jamaica, that would prove a worthy investment. His interest piqued and valuing his friend's judgement he jumped on a flight to Jamaica to check it out.
"Although my father started out as a farmer and talked about getting back into it, I had no inclination to follow in his footsteps. To be honest, I didn't think I had any aptitude for it and it didn't interest me but I must say my initial impression of the property was favourable," said Marley.
"I remember hearing this rumbling sound and was told that it was a river that ran through it. That made it for me, but I was apprehensive. I thought this must be some bandooloo business because there is no way anyone would give up this beautiful piece of land. Anyway, I got my chequebook out and sealed the deal right there and then," said Marley.
Most of Bob Marley's progeny have gone into the entertainment business and have had some success there. Rohan chose instead to go into business ventures. He studied sociology at the University of Miami and was a linebacker for the university's football team, Hurricanes.
He would later go on to play professionally for the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders. Today, he still has an athletic physique and can still strut his stuff on the gridiron.
Marley realised that with his newly acquired title came a once-working coffee farm. After taking over the property he was told that the workers were not to be trusted and that praedial larceny was the order of the day. Marley quickly assessed that it would do him no good if he was viewed in the same way as the previous owner and set about discovering what "a gwaan."
"They told me that they picked the fuit and vegetables and used them to feed the community and that was regarded as theft. I said if we are going to have a good relationship, things would have to change. I instructed them that from now on, what was on the trees was to be used to feed the community and that a new sheriff was in town. I would not have a problem with them eating what came from the farm. I had to motivate them and encourage them to become self-sufficient," he said.
"With a farm came a community of workers but it was not profitable. I decided to try and turn it around. The first decision I took, and still stand by today, was to be go organic, — no pesticides. In 2000, we established a company and set up offices here on Hope Road at the Marley Museum," he explained.
He contacted the Coffee Board in order to find out just how an organic coffee farm could become a viable business and what would be needed to satisfy regulations. It proved extremely difficult to get the required licence and he spent years just reaping coffee berries and being unable to process them. He solicited the assistance of his good friend, Balram Vaswani, who would prove instrumental in shaping and leading the company and setting it on a path for growth.
Marley had a fortuitous meeting with a coffee processor who told him to bring what he had reaped and that he could get him ready for the market. The young Marley was not prepared to send his coffee to the Coffee Board for a measly $2,405 a box. Why? Because the coffee is sold in the United States for US$50 per pound. The way Marley saw it, the powers that be are making money off the coffee farmers, hand over fist.
"Man, I'm not that smart but I'm not that dumb. The Coffee Board was not offering a worthwhile deal so I thought best to process it myself.
I bought the necessary machinery, humidifiers, the works. The guy who offered to process my coffee didn't work out, and I was left with containers consisting of 132 pounds per bag of coffee sitting in my house waiting for somebody to take me to the next level. Hardly the right start for a fledgling business."
He went back to the United States and then on to Ethiopia to find himself, spiritually. His hiatus there saw him encountering coffee on the African continent and that period would serve to deepen his knowledge of the crop. In 2009, he looked to Vaswani to turn the company around and come on board full-time as CEO. Vaswani saw the potential and dutifully obliged, setting his sights on acquiring that elusive licence and ramping up the company's marketing arm, while at the same time identifying potential markets. Eleven years after Marley secured the farm in Portland and set out to be a coffee farmer, Vaswani successfully managed to land not only the Coffee Board licence but also a dealer's licence, as well. Marley Coffee Limited was on its way.
"What that meant was that we could register our trademark as a genuine Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee," Vaswani explained. "The dealer's licence means that we can buy coffee from other suppliers to meet demand. Today, we can meet any contract and can supply coffee at will. I looked at all the coffee brands and organisations, including Mavis Bank's Jablum. What we wanted to establish was a distinct brand with the Marley vibe that would command respect. I think people would have to agree that today, respect is due."
Vaswani was particularly impressed with the Sharp family's coffee operation, moreso its marketing savvy. He saw an alliance there that could take Marley Coffee to the next level.
"Balram came up with a fantastic business plan and took the time to acquaint himself with a number of coffee traders he introduced me to," explained Marley. "From there our fortunes changed and we were on the crest of a wave. His business acumen has really made the difference. The Sharps came on board and both Jason and Richard (Sharp) brought so much to the table. They both were behind the idea of producing an exportable Blue Mountain coffee. The idea is to get Blue Mountain coffee into places it has never been before. To us, it is not just about exporting to Japan. The European and United States markets are still largely untapped and we see great potential there. Already, Marley Coffee can be found in 23 locations in Whole Foods stores throughout California and we have formed a great relationship with them. They have been very gracious in giving us fantastic exposure."
The co-branding of the Marley name with Jamaica's most notable premium agricultural product is a formidable mix, and selling it to export markets has gone down well, so far. Rohan and Vaswani have already come up with a number of different brands and price points that include "Buffalo Soldier", "Mystic Morning", "Lively Up!", "Simmer Down", "One Love", and "Lion's Blend Jammin Java", which is a line they have created for bulk-buying by restaurants, hotels, educational institutions and corporations with a notable catering arm.
There is even an Ethiopian coffee line. A 340 g/12-ounce bag of Jamaica Blue Mountain Marley Coffee will set you back about US$20.00, which is competitively priced compared to other offerings out there on the market.
The Marley brand
Bob Marley, who died almost 30 years ago is challenging both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson for the title of richest deceased celebrity. Toronto-based private equity firm Hilco Consumer Capital has struck a management deal with the Marley Estate, which is expected to generate worldwide annual sales in excess of US$1 billion by 2012. This is all the more remarkable considering Jamaica's total GDP is US$12 billion.
According to Fortune Magazine, the Marley name has already generated US$650 million in pirated merchandise. Mickey Goodman, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, says: "Bob Marley is a strong global brand. He enjoys a high level of awareness and people feel positive about his music."
Bob Marley's children are intent on seeing that his legacy remains intact and that future generations will remain financially comfortable. Aware of the potency of the brand, The House of Marley has been formed for the purpose of operating all products and services bearing Jamaica's most famous son's name and image. Only last November, action sports label Billabong signed a deal with Marley & Co to collaborate on the Billabong X Bob Marley Collection. The line consists of boardshorts, T-shirts, tank tops and selected accessories. The Billabong X Bob Marley collection is made using premium recycled and organic materials, supporting environmentally safe products.
"Working with the Marley family to interpret their vision of their father onto our garments has been inspiring," notes Billabong Design Director Rob McCaty. "Cedella and Ziggy (Marley) have provided great insight to make this collaboration a success."
The Marley Collection is prominently featured in all Billabong store shop windows throughout the world.
Bob Marley may well be looking down with pride at the entrepreneurial savvy displayed by his children who have taken what he has created and managed to "Catch a Fire" in different arenas. They certainly haven't sat on their laurels and relied solely on record royalties flowing in.
Bringing in the Champ, Lennox Lewis
The Caribbean market has not escaped Marley Coffee's attention and here they have elicited the help of Brew Brothers, which is run by the Dadlani family.
"The Dadlani family represent the Cartier brand in Jamaica," said Vaswani. "They know how to represent and position a brand. We want our coffee to be presented in the same way as a luxury item is. To that end, we are not driven by price but rather by quality. We are now in the Caves, Tryall, Round Hill and Good Hope. We want to create a number of different price points while at the same time not sacrificing quality. We have plans for our bags to be stitched and made in Trench Town so people in that community can earn an income.
"Right now, 80 per cent of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is exported to Japan. We want to go the opposite direction and then look at the Japanese market, when it is ready for us. We want to enter that market properly and do so with experience in place of other substantial markets," explained Vaswani.
Former boxing heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who has a residence in Jamaica, has come on board as a shareholder in Marley Coffee and is excited about its potential and the progress made thus far. He will serve as an ambassador of the brand.
"Lennox Lewis is one of the best heavyweight champions the world has ever seen," said Vaswani. "He moved back to Jamaica and wanted to put his name and presence behind a Jamaican company. He chose Marley Coffee and he is wholeheartedly behind it and is an important shareholder. Marley Coffee is comprised of Rohan Marley and the Marley family, Lennox Lewis, myself, the Sharp family (Jason and Richard), and Shane Whittle."
Listing on the OTC Stock Exchange
Last year, Rohan Marley listed Jammin Java on the US OTC Stock Exchange, coming in at an initial share price of 15 cents. Today, the share price stands at US$1.54 and Jammin Java coffee boasts a market cap of US$104 million. There are now plans to open two coffee shops — one at the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road in Kingston, the other in Austria. The shops should be open to the public sometime next year. The idea is to have one location per country rather than attempting to emulate the Starbucks model.
"We want to create the entire coffee-making experience for our customers. We are working with the Scharf family (who have over 1,000 coffee shops across Europe) where they have created a simulator which will enable people to come into our shops and see the coffee being picked and the farm at work. We also want to introduce streaming and video conferencing. Bob Marley's Facebook page has 23 million friends and so the power of social networking cannot be ignored.
"The next stage for Marley Coffee is to launch our distribution network in Jamaica. We will hit the streets with all our SKUs and look to build relationships. We have recently completed a distribution deal to take Marley Coffee into the UK and Ireland. Who knows, we may even list on the Jamaica Stock Exchange some time soon," said Marley.