Brewing better lives through coffee
Westrock Coffee CEO and Co-founder Scott Ford offers a fair wage to millions of farmers globally, and training to thousands of smallholder farmers, with support and financing from Wells Fargo.
During the Great Depression, struggling with poverty and dire living conditions, Scott Ford’s grandmother lost two children. Decades later, Ford visited Rwanda following the country’s genocide — a visit that brought to mind his family’s story and made the situation personal. He understood the devastation poverty could have on families. That visit changed the trajectory of his life.
“I didn’t realize that throughout the world, some people were struggling just to keep their children alive,” Ford said, noting that a single bad crop cycle could be devasting for the country’s farmers. He was incensed that businesspeople in countries half a world away were setting crop prices too low to be sustainable for Rwandan farmers.
“I said, ‘Well, we can’t fix the world, but we can fix that.’” In 2009, he fulfilled that promise, establishing Westrock Coffee to provide livable income for Rwandan smallholder coffee farmers.
“I started the business out of anger,” said Ford, Westrock Coffee CEO and co-founder. “How can people profiteer on the backs of people who are trying to keep their children alive?” Today, Westrock Coffee and its mission are thriving. Each day, it provides 20 million cups of coffee sourced from 1.5 million smallholder farms in 35 countries.
Relationship built over decades proves invaluable
Although Ford was an established entrepreneur who’d been CEO of the wireless phone giant Alltel, he was initially unable to get funding for his new business venture.
“No one would help. People said, ‘You’re a telecom guy. You’re not a coffee guy. You don’t know anything about the commodity markets,’” Ford said. But that didn’t stop him; he put his entire life savings at risk to bring his vision to life. “I just couldn’t walk away.”
Fortunately, Ford had a multidecade relationship with Jim Broner, head of Wells Fargo Regional Investment Banking, who supported Ford during his years at Alltel. Broner periodically checked in with his former client and learned of Ford’s plans to expand Westrock Coffee.
“Scott is a visionary and an inspiring leader. He’s always had the bigger picture in mind,” Broner said. “I knew he was going to have a second act after Alltel.”
Armed with this insight, Broner connected Ford to the right teams in Wells Fargo Commercial Banking and Wells Fargo Corporate & Investment Banking to provide financing for growth and to help take Westrock Coffee public.
“I used to run a Fortune 100 company, but I don’t know anything about financing a mid-tier market business.” — Scott Ford, Westrock Coffee CEO and co-founder
“I used to run a Fortune 100 company, but I don’t know anything about financing a mid-tier market business,” said Ford. “The Wells Fargo team worked for us for two years for free. I have the names of 50 banks that we called when we decided to raise money and go public. None of them were down here every 90 days helping us think through it for two years.”
Over 20 Wells Fargo team members worked on the Westrock Coffee transaction, according to Jason Rein, managing director of Corporate & Investment Banking (CIB) Consumer and Retail. He said the team, a collaboration between CIB and Commercial Banking, came up with a dozen options for Westrock Coffee before delivering a comprehensive strategic solution that supports the next phase of growth for the company.
“The teamwork here was tremendous,” Rein said. “It’s humbling to be a part of something that’s bigger than me, to be able to provide capital and advice to a company that is looking to break down walls of an industry and deliver solutions that serve a need in the marketplace but still have a mission-based purpose of improving the economic well-being of individuals across the globe. To be just one little part of that, I think it’s really exciting.”
Tangible benefits for farmers
Among beneficiaries of Ford’s vision are more than 52,400 Rwandian farmers who’ve completed Westrock Coffee’s Agribusiness Training Program, which teaches trainees innovative farming techniques, money management, and how to reinvest in the community. The program, funded by Westrock, is led by members of a local co-op who have expertise in the area, and people living in the local communities retain control over how to spend resources.
Christine Uwamugura, a widowed mother of nine, was an early Agribusiness Training Program participant. Following the two-and-a-half-year initiative, she increased coffee bean yield by 300%, earned enough to afford medical insurance and education for all her children, and was able to bring electricity into her home.
Learn more about Uwamugura and Westrock Coffee in How Westrock Coffee is helping grow their crops and their business (2 minutes).
“There’s a lot of infrastructure in the U.S. and developed countries that is available for farmers to use, and that infrastructure does not exist in the countries that Westrock sources coffee beans from,” said Shannan Townsend, division executive for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking, Agribusiness, Food, & Hospitality. “And so, Westrock has created that infrastructure for the farmers.”
Knowing his vision has improved the lives of millions of people across the globe, Ford is glad he took that early risk in establishing Westrock Coffee. “After having spent half my life getting ready, I’d hate to waste the back half of my career and not know that we made a difference.”