Coffee connections

Three Carolina alumni have guided Counter Culture Coffee from an idea born in a class proposal to a business with worldwide influence on the coffee industry.

In 1994, Brett Smith had just earned a master’s degree in business administration from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and had assembled what he calls a “tool chest.” He was looking for a place to use those tools.

Smith had a business plan for a mail-order coffee company, which he had seen presented in a business school course called “New Ventures,” a course now modeled in classes and startup contests across UNC. He needed a partner and found one in the late Fred Houk Jr., who earned undergraduate and law degrees from UNC, and was known for promoting shade-grown coffees.

In 1995, the two started the wholesale company, and Counter Culture has become the standard for specialty coffee companies.

Everything I learned in business school

“Starting a business from scratch, I’ve touched on just about everything I learned in business school – from finances and marketing and HR to a little statistical analysis every now and then,” Smith says.

Two years into the company’s existence, Dr. Rollie Tillman needed a fill-in speaker and asked Smith to tell the Counter Culture story. “One of my favorite parts of business school was when guest speakers came in. Later, I knew that I had kind of made it when I actually was on the syllabus. I wasn’t the backup,” Smith says.

Smith enjoys returning to UNC to speak with classes on entrepreneurism or sustainability, and talking with the faculty and students. He also likes talking to and listening to coffee farmers and other people who are part of his company’s supply chain.

“Coffee is an amazing industry because it’s global and the coffee is grown in amazing places,” Smith says. Counter Culture staff keep in touch with farmers in Africa, Central America and other regions through Skype, but they also visit their farms.

Incredibly meaningful

“We call it visiting origin, visiting the producer,” says Smith. “It’s incredibly meaningful to be invited to someone’s home that might have a dirt floor and corrugated tin roof, and to sit down to break bread with them, and you might be eating goat or something really interesting, and hear their story and talk with them about coffee and see the start of a product that ends up making this incredible journey to Durham, North Carolina, where we roast it and package it, into the cups of thousands of people around the country.”

Smith attributes Counter Culture’s success to its employees.

“I chuckled in business school when people said, ‘Oh, people make the difference’ and they’d also include vision statements. To be honest those two aspects have probably been most meaningful for our success. Our vision statement relates to quality, sustainability and education. And we’ve continued to build the company around that core. Our folks feel an amazing passion about coffee and about success. I like to describe the people here as laid-back type A’s. On the surface, it might seem casual, and it is, but everybody here wants to succeed and that’s driving us.”

Two of those laid-back type A’s are Carolina graduates, Lydia Iannetti ‘02 and Lem Butler ‘99.

Click page 2 below to read more about these Carolina alumni.

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