Michael Harris Conlin: Roasting success

Lynda C. Corpuz
10 years in the industry and this entrepreneur is now ready to waft ASEAN and the world with his full service coffee company’s aroma of achievements

COFFEE LOVER. 'Coffee is my fuel, my source of energy,' says Michael Harris Conlin as he shares how he started his company Conlins Coffee World Inc.

MANILA, Philippines – It was during one of the family’s summer vacations in Canada that Michael Harris Conlin, 34, president and CEO of Conlins Coffee World Inc. fell in love with coffee. 

“My dad (Henry) is a big coffee fan. He had an espresso machine, dripper, grinder (among other coffee-making accessories and equipment). In one of our vacations, he packed an espresso machine with him and he taught me to use it. But that time, I’m not allowed to drink coffee yet. I was a kid, baka raw hindi ako tumangkad (I might not grow tall),” Harris laughed.

Harris enjoyed making espresso for his dad and family friends. Finally in high school, he savored, not only the aroma, but a fresh cup of espresso.

To date, Harris’ mornings are fueled with about 5 cups of espresso; about 500 ml. of hand drip coffee to sustain him after lunch onward; and he caps his evenings, again, with espresso. “For every cup of coffee I drink, I wash it away with two cups of water. Coffee relaxes me. I feel less energetic if I have less coffee in a day. Coffee is my fuel, my source of energy,” Harris cited.

From abaca to coffee

That energy is evident in how Harris stirred his success: from starting in the family’s over 40-year-old abaca export business to venturing on his own, establishing Conlins in 2000.

After taste-testing, Harris and his dad were unhappy with the kinds of coffee available locally that time thus they decided to initially offer green beans. So, armed with his savings from working in Canada (where the Filipino-Chinese family immigrated), Harris bought his first container of green beans from Vietnam, with a kilo of Arabica green beans costing only US$1.23 (now it’s at US$5 per kilo, according to Harris).

He wanted to supply green beans to the local coffee shops and other coffee roasters. But efforts were futile. “I was stuck with a container of green beans. I didn’t know what to do with it. So, I returned to the family business. I went around the US and I came across one of our clients who like drinking coffee. That client asked me, ‘why don’t you study roasting coffee?’ So I studied in the US,” Harris narrated, who is now a master coffee roaster. “It took me about two years to get things going. It’s good that green beans can be stored up to two years,” Harris laughed.

Conlins steadily built its niche, with the likes of EDSA Shangri-La Hotel as its first biggest client, which they bagged through their JURA (Swiss automatic coffee machines brand) Swiss distributor, Singapore-based Albert Birbaumer, who suggested to Conlins that they also service the hotel instead of him being flown here to service their 3 machines (each makes 300 cups of coffee in an hour).

“That’s how we got our first big account. Until this day, EDSA Shangri-La is still buying our coffee,” Harris shared, added that they also supplied coffee to Max’s chain of restaurants, among other restaurants, coffee shops, bars, offices, community organizations—even churches.

10 years strong

TRYING IT OUT. Harris' company mainly focuses on Arabica, but also dabbles in Liberica (barako) and Robusta coffee

From that second-hand, 7-kilo roaster when starting the business, Conlins upgraded to 24-kilo, then to a 70-kilo roaster as demand grew. “We were affected though in 2009 to 2010 when coffee prices jumped to double, triple from its original price. But coffee is a commodity and it’s always about timing. Now, Arabica prices jumped to almost 26%,” Harris pointed out.

Conlins mainly focuses on Arabica, but also dabbles in Liberica (barako) and Robusta. They source their beans from Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil in Latin America, and from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda in Africa.

“Before we used to source from Vietnam, but theirs is not as versatile as Indonesian coffee. We also source coffee locally through coffee traders and cooperatives to encourage farmers to plant more [coffee]. We don’t mind paying more, as long as the quality is good. When the local buying price in 2010 to 2011 was at PHP160 per kilo, we were buying it at PHP200 to PHP220 per kilo. We buy from Benguet, Bukidnon, Mt. Apo, and recently, we bought a nice lot of barako fom Lipa, Batangas,” he shared.

To date, apart from being the exclusive distributor of JURA, WMF (Germany-made, fully automated coffee machines), and the Wega (Italian-made espresso machines), Conlins also carries coffee brands like Aroma, Artisans, and Bluenotes; Serenity syrups; and Alessi (Italian kitchen utensils company), which store located at Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. They also have the CW Lifestyle Café, Conlins Elements, and Conlins Trinoma stores. Their products are also available at Rustan’s stores.

Going global

In November 2013, Conlins completed the acquisition of Boyd Coffee Co. (Phils) Inc. “Boyd is a pioneer in the market. I wanted to be like them because they have roots in the industry and they’re always setting the bar. When the opportunity (to acquire) was presented to me, I thought it would be nice to have roots—a solid foundation—before our young company can export our coffee to the likes of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,” Harris explained.

While still servicing the local market, Conlins will be focusing more on exports, while Boyd’s—Conlins’ first ever acquisition—will continue to be a major player domestically. “With the acquisition, we kept the products, the suppliers, the people. I believe that in business, ‘walang iwanan.’ Most of the people I started with Conlins are still with us. We try to keep our employees happy, ensuring that they are happy at home, coming to work happy, thus, they’re giving the best customer service. From that comes profitability, which goes back to the employees and to their families. Once you have the full support of your people, things will fall into place,” Harris said.

Combined, Conlins and Boyd now have about 150 employees and now roasts 130 metric tons of coffee.

Specifically, Conlins is aligning its strategies with the ASEAN regional economic integration by 2015. To start, Conlins will be joining the Food&HotelAsia (FHA) in Singapore from April 8 to 11, 2014, showcasing its non-coffee products like its Serenity flavored syrups, ready-to-drink beverages, and caramel, chocolate, and strawberry sauces.

“We’re prepared. We’ll have our flavored syrups and sauces on display. Those products are the first we’re trying to export. The Philippines is a sugar-producing country so we’re starting with those. So far, we’re the only Asian manufacturer of these products so we’re fighting the battle where we know we can easily win. Coffee is something we aligned for the future,” Harris enthusiastically shared and is looking forward to have distributors in Asia by next year.

Conlins is also conducting coffee seminars and organizing barista tournaments. “We’re still polishing the details for the ‘Barista’s Quest,’ a web show search for the best barista in town where we’ll be awarding a 2-year, PHP500,000 employment contract. There is a high turnover of baristas here while abroad they get paid very well. That’s why we want to encourage them through this,” Harris explained.

Harris is keen to innovate more products, like cold brew coffee for export. Conlins is also improving on its product packaging and design, specifically of Boyd’s products. The company is also introducing in local supermarkets Boyd’s coffee and non-coffee products like soup stocks and gravy from the US. “It’s like ‘winning by looks.’ But the product inside has to reflect what is being presented. We have good chances. We only have to be more design-oriented. My architect wife, Johanna (who designed the Alessi store) is helping me with our design,” he beamed.

Despite competition from Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Asian countries, Harris said Conlins is ready to conquer Asia, then global. “In the Philippine market, you compete for freshness. When a coffee has to be transported across miles and seas, its freshness is deteriorated. That’s why I’m confident that what we roast here is better than the imported coffee. So, we’re optimistic. Our company is positioned and ready to compete and guard our turf,” he firmly said.

Harris also sees the ASEAN integration as a challenge. “We simply have to be prepared. Conlins has been preparing for this for the past two years. Either you prepare yourself for the incoming competition or simply disappear. With the ASEAN integration, your market base will expand. You’ll have more clients. There is more potential. You won’t be playing in your own backyard anymore,” he said. – Rappler.com

For over 11 years now, Lynda C. Corpuz has extensively covered business, finance, personal finance, management systems, arts and culture, health, parenting, and women issues as a journalist and editor, with relevant research, public relations, and management experience. On free occasions, she blogs at lyndaccorpuz.wordpress.com and descovrir.blogspot.com.