Business leaders

UCC offers ‘total coffee solution’

By Aidan Fortune

- Last updated on GMT

Elaine Swift (centre) talks about UCC's dedication to offering a 'total coffee solution'
Elaine Swift (centre) talks about UCC's dedication to offering a 'total coffee solution'
Offering the total coffee experience takes dedication. Elaine Swift, managing director of UCC Coffee UK and Ireland, sets out strong ambitions for the business.

That mug of coffee doesn’t just appear on your desk or in your hand on the daily commute. It’s a drawn-out process, starting with the bean all the way to the cup, and takes dedication and extensive supply chain knowledge.

With the coffee shop market in the UK expected to reach £13bn by 2022, up from £9.6bn last year (Allegra World Coffee Portal), a business needs the right support to succeed in this industry or it could easily fall by the wayside. Enter the “total coffee solution”​ that is UCC Coffee UK and Ireland.

Part of the Japanese parent company UCC Holdings, the UK and Ireland division is currently run by Elaine Swift, who previously held roles at First Choice Coffee and Bewley’s Coffee. She explains how the company provides a complete offering to anyone selling coffee in the UK and Ireland.

We are the UK’s leading total coffee solutions provider  along the entire coffee supply chain, offering everything that a business may need to sell coffee.”

As well as being Europe’s largest own-label coffee roaster and owner of the Lyons, Coopers and ThreeSixty coffee brands, UCC offers machines, branding expertise, logistics support and insight to the sector. The business even offers its customers bespoke blends on request, which entails creating a taste profile, blend matching, branding and, of course, future support for when things go wrong.

Swift says the past year has been strong for UCC and the British coffee market in general. The rise of coffee shops – both independent outlets and chains – has only been good for the business and this growing trend has helped it to recently celebrate breaking the £100m sales turnover barrier.

Outgrowing the market

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“We’re outgrowing the UK coffee market, which saw a 3% volume sales rise last year, whereas our volume sales rose 12% year-on-year,”​ she explains.

“The business has gone from strength to strength over the past 20 years to become the UK’s leading total coffee solution.

“We work with the biggest names in international retailing and foodservice, as well as smaller businesses, all looking to deliver the highest-quality coffee. And we do a lot of brand engagement with our customers to help them market their businesses properly to the public.”

Not content with the growth achieved in the past year, Swift believes the company, which employs 500 people, can continue its double-digit growth trajectory for the foreseeable future, with a view to eventually “doubling the business”.

With these ambitious plans in mind, UCC has invested £1.3m on refurbishing its Milton Keynes headquarters to include a new training and demonstration facility as part of its Coffee Works programme. It has also upgraded its state-of-the-art workshop, doubling its size, with the aim of supporting the maintenance and service of its army of coffee machines throughout the UK. 

To help cope with expected extra demand from this enhancement, the business also plans to revamp its Dartford roastery, increasing its capacity to 18,000t by the end of this year.

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Focus on sustainability

However, the company is not just looking to improve its financial health. Sustainability has become a major focus for many businesses in the food industry, and UCC is no exception. Last year, it hired a new head of supply chain and sustainability.

Moving over from McDonald’s, Liz Higgins has been charged with raising sustainability higher up in UCC to create a positive impact on the business, its supply chain and its customers.

Swift outlines what Higgins’ role is in the business and how it will start from the top and work its way down to create a new culture. “We’ve set some very ambitious targets for the business, but we want to do it responsibly.

We need to make sure that everything we do and sell is 100% traceable and that we’re taking action on plastics. UCC has laid out an achievable strategy for sustainability that will give our customers confidence moving forward.”

Confidence certainly isn’t in short supply at UCC and Swift has no fears about the shadow looming over many food and drink manufacturers – Brexit. “We’ll just get on with it. People will always see coffee as an affordable luxury that doesn’t break the bank. That won’t change once the UK leaves the EU.”

Even though domestic coffee consumption isn’t likely to be under threat, Swift maintains Brexit still presents risks for the business and the industry in general.

‘Shouldn’t be affected by Brexit’

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“Coffee shouldn’t really be affected by something like Brexit, but there are pressures that come with it: our equipment comes from abroad, costs will change with currency fluctuations, but you just have to cope with it until they become the norm,”​ says Swift. “Thankfully, we’ve got a strong management team in place and plans to grow in the future.”

Swift sees the real battle in the coffee market taking place between vendors, with competition coming from all angles. “There are so many alternative coffee venues popping up, and while people care about the quality, they don’t mind where they get it from,”​ she says.

She predicts those that are not at the top of their game will get left behind as competition grows. “There’s already a massive battle taking place on the high street among traditional retailers – and coffee will be no different. As there has been in retail, there could be a lot of casualties.

“We’re seeing more really ‘out-there’ locations that are selling coffee because they recognise the opportunity and it doesn’t have to take over an existing business. It can be a lucrative addition to any business, with few barriers to entry if done correctly.”

Ultimately, Swift says it shouldn’t matter where the coffee is served, once it’s done right. But do it wrong at your peril.

“It’s essential for a coffee vendor to get the core favourites right and do the basics well​,” she advises. “One bad experience could ruin a business and there’s too much competition for customers right now to let any slip away.”

Fact file

Name​: Elaine Swift         

Job Title:​ Managing director

Company:​ UCC Coffee UK and Ireland

Age:​ 51

Tenure in position:​ Eight years

Business growth:​ Volume up 12% year-on-year

Number of staff:​ 500

Related topics: People & Skills, Drinks

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