Business

The woman who built a coffee empire from a small town

  • 30 November 2015
  • From the section Business
Elana Rosenfeld Image copyright Stephanie Van de Kemp
Image caption Elana Rosenfeld has built a coffee empire from a small town in rural British Columbia

Elana Rosenfeld was not even remotely prepared for her first wholesale orders.

Kicking Horse Coffee, a Canadian firm she had started with her partner Leo Johnson was getting some orders from gourmet stores in Calgary, Alberta, 172 miles (277km) away from their base in the tiny town of Invermere in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains.

They didn't have any cardboard boxes to pack the coffee in, so they scoured the town's lone back alley for any they could use.

When they'd finally taped the package shut, they took it to Skinny's Shoe Repair - the spot where the Greyhound buses stopped in Invermere - and put it on a bus to its destination.

That was in 1996. Since then, Kicking Horse Coffee has become one of the biggest retail success stories in Canada, its distinct black packaging appearing in grocery stores and cafes across the country, as well as in the US.

The company is tight-lipped about its finances, but expects to roast more than 1.3 million tons of coffee this year and has over 85 employees.

And in 2012, marketing research firm AC Nielsen ranked it as one of the top ten commercial brands in Canada, alongside national stalwarts like bakery chain Tim Hortons.

Image copyright Alan Maudie
Image caption Kicking Horse Coffee is available across Canada, and at its very own cafe in Invermere

Despite all its success, Kicking Horse Coffee is still based in the same town in which it started.

While the population of Invermere swells in the summer when tourists visit its hot springs and nearby wildlife parks, for the rest of the year it is home to just 3,000 people.

It is not the kind of place you'd expect to find one of Canada's biggest retails businesses - now housed in a modern 60,000 sq ft (5,570 sq m) facility just east of the Columbia River that bisects the town as it drains into Windermere Lake.

'Show some grit'

Ms Rosenfeld says she never planned to run a successful business.

After university in Montreal, she wanted nothing more than to immerse herself in small-town Canadian life. Building an empire was the last thing on her mind.

Image copyright Kicking Horse Coffee
Image caption Elana Rosenfeld and her former partner Leo Johnson started the business from their garage

So following her graduation in the early 1990s, Ms Rosenfeld and Mr Johnson drove their orange 1972 Volkswagen campervan to Invermere, where they had decided to settle.

"I was really a little bit naive about it," says Ms Rosenfeld, now 46. "I planned to do anything, pump gas, whatever."

But with jobs hard to come by in small town British Columbia, the couple - who had moved into a cabin with no electricity or running water - initially ran a fruit stand that catered to tourists during the summer months.

However, they quickly realised that they needed to set up a business that could be successful all year round.

Ms Rosenfeld says: "You have to be creative and show some grit. The jobs aren't going to come to you."

So taking out a loan they bought a local cafe, which turned a modest profit and enabled them to save up to spend a year travelling the world.

Image copyright Alan Maudie
Image caption The view from Kicking Horse's factory isn't too shabby

Returning to Invermere in 1996 they took out another loan, and began roasting organic and fair trade coffee beans in their garage, giving the business the name Kicking Horse Coffee.

As sales quickly took off, it soon became apparent that their product was going to be bigger than the town from which it came.

"We realised it was getting big pretty early on, when we started getting feedback and reaction from people," Ms Rosenfeld says.

"We realised it had a ton of potential. Once we got our first grocery account, which was Thrifty Foods on Vancouver Island, and started working that segment of the market we saw the potential to go across Canada."

US difficulties

After positive world of mouth helped Kicking Horse grow in its early days, the ambitious company started to appoint sales representatives across Canada. Major contracts with Canadian retailers soon followed.

However, Kicking Horse's first few attempts to crack the crowded US market failed, and it only started to see success south of the border in 2014.

Image copyright Kicking Horse Coffee
Image caption Kicking Horse was a pioneer in Canada of selling both fair trade and organic coffee

"There was no full plan or investment in place," Ms Rosenfeld says of its first moves into the US.

"The market there is so massive and diverse... You've really got to pick your areas that you want to focus on.

"There are so many retailers there. The Canadian landscape is really very simple and there are very few players. In the US it's wild, and it's a lot more expensive to go into the marketplace there than in Canada."

Kicking Horse Coffee also faced a potential blip in 2010 when Ms Rosenfeld and Mr Johnson separated and he left the company. Yet Ms Rosenfeld says the firm's growth was unaffected.

To greatly increase the company's further expansion, Ms Rosenfeld sold a minority stake in the business in 2012.

Although the exact value of the deal and the amount of equity involved has not been revealed, private equity firm Branch Brook Holdings has invested millions of dollars in Kicking Horse.

"We've basically doubled the business since then," says Ms Rosenfeld.

Image copyright Kicking Horse Coffee
Image caption It helps if Kicking Horse's staff - seen here on a work walk - like outdoor pursuits

With Kicking Horse Coffee now a household name across Canada, coffee industry expert Colin Newell says there are a number of factors behind its success.

Mr Newell, who runs the CoffeeCrew blog, says it benefitted from being "the first out of the gate" in Canada, being at the vanguard of selling fair trade, organic coffee.

"They had a vision and a tireless amount of energy, and ran with the idea. They kept scaling it up and they've continuously grown and pushed their brand around western Canada.

"I don't know if 'aggressive' is really the right word, but they believed in their concept. In 2015, a lot of companies are doing what they're doing on a smaller scale, but they were the first."

Back at Kicking Horse Coffee, Ms Rosenfeld admits that her role as the boss has had to change over the years, specifically in terms of it taking longer to make decisions.

"You know that saying 'ready, aim, fire'? In the beginning, when you're just an entrepreneur, you just fire," she says.

"Now, it's more about ready, and aim. It's been about forming that structure and organisation, and being able to execute."

But despite the changes to the business, Ms Rosenfeld says her enthusiasm remains undimmed.

"It has never felt like work, it has always been fun and continues to be."

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