July 7, 2008 Edition, COVER STORY
Making a World of Difference
Social Activist, ‘Javatrekker’ Dean Cycon Believes in Organic Business Growth
By GEORGE O’BRIEN
Dean Cycon, owner of Orange-based Dean’s Beans, is in demand these days. He’s spoken on a number of college campuses, and recently addressed a UN group on the subject of how businesses are addressing human-rights issues in their supply chains — or not. Cycon, an entrepreneur, social activist, and now an author, has achieved such status through his work with and on behalf of coffee-growing nations — efforts that go well beyond paying a fair price for beans.
Dean Cycon says he received the E-mail early last spring.
It was from the committee coordinating the commencement-speech portion of graduation ceremonies at Hampshire College in Amherst, and took the form of an invitation to deliver that address. Cycon, president of Orange, Mass.-based Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, which has made a name for itself in the fair-trade arena, quickly checked his calendar and committed to what would be, for him, a first.
“I looked at it as a great opportunity to deliver an important message to a group that certainly needs to hear it,” he said of his commencement speech, dominated by talk about corporate responsibility and social activism. “And I jumped at it.”
Cycon usually doesn’t write out his speeches, preferring to talk off-the-cuff — “I like the passion and authenticity of speaking extemporaneously” — but because this one had to be delivered simultaneously by someone using sign language to reach deaf audience members, he had no choice. Even the perfunctory opening joke had to be scripted.
“I told them that the last time I spoke before a crowd of that size (2,000 or so people) it was in Papua New Guinea, and half of those in attendance were naked,” he told BusinessWest. “So naturally, I was a little nervous.”
Cycon isn’t nervous much at all these days when he’s behind the microphone, and that’s primarily because he’s getting lots of practice. He’s spoken at a number of colleges, including, just this year, Georgetown, Brown, Michigan State, and Williams, and will visit more campuses this fall. He’s also addressed a number of business and civic groups, and recently gave a short but important address before the Human Rights Working Group, part of the United Nations Global Compact, which met this past spring at the Harvard Business School; the group invited Cycon to give a presentation on the subject of how businesses are addressing human rights issues in their supply chains.
“In the audience were representatives of GE, Coca-Cola, BP, Schwepps, and other multi-national companies from around the world,” he said, “and little Dean’s Beans was giving the presentation.”
Cycon’s in-demand status results from the fact that he’s much more than a successful entrepreneur, having grown Dean’s Beans into a roughly $3 million venture with more than a dozen employees. He’s also what would be considered an activist, author, bit actor — he had a tiny role in the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy — and, in a term he contrived himself, a “javatrekker.”
Actually, that word is part of the title of his book, Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee. In it, Cycon takes the reader along with him as he journeys to remote coffee-farming communities in South America, Central America, Africa, and Asia to better understand the issues and challenges facing those in this industry.
And by remote, he means remote.
“In some cases, I was the first American to show up in these places ever, or at least in 60 years, since the end of World War II,” he said, listing some stops in Papua New Guinea as a an example and adding that many of the coffee-growing groups he encounters do not speak the official language of the country in question — be it Guatemala, Kenya, or Sumatra — but their own indigenous tongue.
Cycon tries to pick up and then put to use at least a few words from each language he encounters as a sign of respect to the people he has encountered in his travels, which, by his estimates, have added up to hundreds of thousands of miles.
Actually, this respect comes in a number of far more important ways, he said, listing projects that include a clean-water supply system in Ethiopia that succeeded in eradicating childhood dysentery, and the opening of a café/roastery in Nicaragua that supports a prosthetics clinic established to help victims of land mines.
Such work helps make Cycon comfortable, or more comfortable, with the thought that he is effecting positive change, at a time when many in corporate America are talking a good game when it comes to ‘going green’ and corporate responsibility, but are not walking the walk as much as they could or should.
He sums up his decidedly different approach to business, and especially the coffee business, this way: “I’m a social activist who became a business person, not a business person who woke up one day and realized that he had a greater obligation to his community. It’s not an add-on for me.”
Better Latté Than Never
Cycon told BusinessWest that his book, which recently garnered a gold medal for best travel book from the Independent Publishers Assoc., is getting good reviews, and sales have been steady — nearly 10,000 copies to date — with royalties (about $5,000 so far) going back to the farmers he encountered in those travels.
But it is causing some minor headaches for booksellers.
“That’s because they don’t know where to put it,” said Cycon. “That was the problem for the publisher; they didn’t know if this was a business book, a travel book, a social change book … they didn’t know how to pigeonhole it. You can go into some bookstores and find it on the food shelf or the travel shelf or the business essays shelf.”
Asked on which rack he would put Javatrekker, Cycon thought for a minute, as if to substantiate the dilemma, before saying that virtually any of the options he listed would work fine, and then speaking like any author trying to spur sales. “Maybe they should put it on all of them.”
Summing up the tome, which takes the reader to 10 countries on four continents and features a storytelling style that makes it quite readable, Cycon said it could be described this way: “socially responsible business meets adventure travel.”
And while that works for the book, it also sums up Cycon’s first 55 years on this planet, during which he’s visited 45 countries. Actually, another passage from his commencement address does it better.
“I said that people graduating from college should be less concerned about getting a job than with finding out who they are so they can work toward long-term satisfaction with their employment, especially if they’re interested in making a difference in the world,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was 40 that I found the proper vehicle for my life’s work.”
That would be Dean’s Beans, which he created after navigating a winding career path that took him in a number of directions.
It started with international corporate law.
Cycon told BusinessWest that he handled a number of licensing and distribution agreements for several companies with overseas operations, while also undertaking some environmental-law work, which he described as a “passion.”
Eventually, Cycon left law and had a series of fellowships, including a two-year stint at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and an extended stay in New Zealand as a senior Fulbright Scholar. He was teaching part-time at the University of Rhode Island and UMass, while also practicing some law, when a chance encounter took his career in a new direction.
“I was giving a lecture at URI on the ‘real causes of deforestation in Brazil,’” he explained, “and was approached by a professor after the talk. He said he had a friend in Providence who owns a coffee shop, buys Brazilian coffee, knows how poor the farmers are, and wants to make a difference. Will you meet with him and talk to him?”
Cycon did, and this discussion eventually led to those three individuals forming what Cycon describes as the first nonprofit development organization for the coffee world. Called Coffee Kids, the initiative raised funds from the coffee industry and then distributed them for development projects such as water supply quality, education, and alternative income generation.
Now in its 20th year, Coffee Kids is still addressing quality-of-life issues, but Cycon moved on to take his work with coffee growers to a new, much higher level.
“After doing Coffee Kids for a number of years, I came to realize that the charitable approach was a noble thing, but it was not going to bring change to the coffee industry,” he said. “Companies didn’t have to change their business practices, which were what kept people in a chronic state of underdevelopment.
“I thought, ‘what would it look like if a company actually paid a fair price for the coffee and engaged directly in the lives of the people it bought from through development work?’” he continued. “So I created Dean’s Beans to model how that might look; could I do this and still be profitable? If I could, then no coffee company had an excuse to do things differently.
“Looking back over the past 15 years,” he concluded, “I’d say we’ve had a major impact on how the coffee industry does business, from Starbucks on down.”
Expert in His Field
As a lawyer, Cycon was already somewhat of an entrepreneur, and his work in corporate law provided a basic understanding of most issues and challenges that come with getting an enterprise off the ground. Meanwhile, his experiences with Coffee Kids afforded him some general knowledge of the coffee business itself. This combination, plus a healthy dose of self-confidence, provided all the impetus needed to launch Dean’s Beans, which he did with a small roaster, eight bags of coffee, and realistic expectations.
“I’m a risk-taker, and I love a challenge,” he said of his decision to go into business for himself, “and this was both a risk and a challenge.”
From the start, Cycon has been conservative with regard to growth and how to manage it. He recently told the Boston Business Journal, “growth is the outcome of a good business; it’s not the goal,” and he has operated with that mindset.
Indeed, when Whole Foods Market Inc., his biggest account with 80 stores, wanted to put Dean’s Beans in all its stores (more than 270 of them in North America and the United Kingdom), and when Trader Joe’s later wanted to do the same, he turned them both down — and for different reasons.
“With Whole Foods, I didn’t want to grow that quickly — it would have tripled our business overnight and changed the complete company culture,” he explained. “As for Trader Joe’s, well, I just didn’t like them, and because I am an entrepreneur and I mind my own business, I can make those decisions; we didn’t need the business, and I didn’t like their business ethic.”
Since he started Dean’s Beans, Cycon has been socially responsible with most all of his decisions.
Indeed, when asked why he chose to move his fledgling operation to remote Orange after initially setting up shop in a barn off his home in nearby New Salem, he said the community had one of the highest, if not the highest, unemployment rates in the state, and needed an infusion of jobs.
As for the eventual site of his 6,000-square-foot operations center and beanery, this was the location sought by a company as a home for a hazardous-waste-reprocessing center. Cycon was a member of a state board that turned down that proposal in the late ’80s. He told BusinessWest that his decision to locate on that very site was his way of “repaying the town.”
“Interestingly, I bought the same piece of land that this company was going to be located on, and put an organic food-processing facility on it instead.”
Growth has been steady in recent years — averaging about 20% per year, by Cycon’s estimates — and those numbers might be better, were it not for the company’s commitment to paying fair-trade prices, but Cycon firmly believes that the success of Dean’s Beans results from the fact that it does pay fair-trade prices.
Explaining how that concept works and why it’s so important to farmers, Cycon said fair trade essentially establishes a floor for coffee prices, or a minimum price that rests above production costs.
“The world coffee-market price fluctuates because this is a speculative commodity,” Cycon explained. “There was a period, from 1997 to 2006, when the world market price crashed, so farmers under free trade were receiving less than the cost of production, and that resulted in more than a million farmers losing their land and becoming economic refugees.
“Fair trade offers a floor price so that, even when the international commodity price goes down quite low, we fair-traders agree that we will never pay less than a minimum, which for me, in the case of organics, is $1.60 a pound,” he continued, adding that the going price was about 36 cents when the market crashed.
Quantifying the impact of paying fair-trade prices, Cycon used the example of some Ethiopian coffee for which he paid $2.40 per pound and Starbucks $1.80, by his recollection. When asked what that 60 cents means, he called upon some other numbers to provide perspective.
“In rural Ethiopia, a teacher earns $300 a year … so it doesn’t take many of these additional 60 cents to pay for a teacher,” he explained. “And in Guatamala, it costs $50 a year to keep a kid in school — so all this adds up.”
While Cycon keeps careful track of his company’s numbers and is involved with most of the decisions regarding operations, sales, and especially succession planning, he admits that he doesn’t handle coffee-roasting anymore; he leaves that to his staff.
In recent years, he has devoted increasingly larger amounts of his time to “this stuff,” as he put it, as the conversation shifted to issues such as fair trade, the environment, corporate responsibility, and compelling other business owners to operate as he does.
His efforts in this regard take a number of forms, from his many speaking engagements to his book, to his ongoing travels to coffee-producing areas to understand the issues facing such constituencies and, when possible, effect change that will improve quality of life.
As he talked with BusinessWest, Cycon was preparing for his latest excursion, this one to Guatemala. Accompanying him will be his wife, Annette, and one of her colleagues, as well as his 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, and two other seniors at Amherst High School.
All the participants have specific goals for what they want to accomplish, said Cycon, who paused to check his E-mail and found an update from Sarah that outlined planned workshops that will work with young women on issues of self-esteem and self-respect.
Another trip is planned for this fall, to the African nation of Rwanda, where Cycon and others will conduct programs for men aimed at overcoming gender violence. A pilot program was undertaken in that country last year, he explained, and it proved so beneficial that farmers asked for a return visit and a full-blown initiative.
“All of these are well-thought-out so that we make maximum use of our time and resources,” he said, adding that he acts essentially as a committee of one when it comes to deciding which places to visit and projects to undertake, although there is work ongoing to “institutionalize” the process.
Cycon told BusinessWest that such projects help illustrate how his company goes well behind simply paying fair-trade prices for coffee.
“The heart and soul of Dean’s Beans is our relationship with the farmers and the environment in the Third World,” he explained. “Rather than just paying the farmer a good price for his product and feeling that this is the end of the equation and that we have no further responsibility, we see the chronic state of underdevelopment of farming communities as one of the reasons why the price is what it is.
“Their quality of life is reflected in the price,” he continued. “When we buy the coffee, we’re buying not only the bean, but also the system that controls their lives, so we take a little responsibility for it. We’re not out to change everything in their lives, but we try to address some of the quality-of-life issues that they have.”
While carrying out such projects, Cycon also fills his calendar with speaking engagements. This summer will be quiet, but there at least eight appearances planned for the fall, many at college campuses. The subject matter varies with each address, but the general themes are corporate responsibility and awareness of environmental concerns, he added, stressing that he preaches sincere actions in these regards, not what he called “marketing efforts.”
“I think every business in the country needs to look hard at the what the values they claim to hold are, and how those values manifest themselves in the working world,” he explained. “Often, I think there’s a real disconnect between the values of an owner or a board of directors and what goes on in their name. All businesses have to make a connection between who they are and how they operate.”
This was the gist of Cycon’s message before the Human Rights Working Group, one he believes resonated with listeners.
“I was approached by pretty much every company after the presentation,” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we’re great at making products and distributing them around the world, but we don’t know how to deal with the communities we source our product from … you seem to have figured that out.’ So I’ve been invited to have a lot of conversations with these companies.”
In general, Cycon says he’s seeing what he considers to be real progress with regard to the issues he addresses in his speeches and E-mails.
“There’s a shift … companies are really taking a serious look at the need to integrate ‘green’ and socially responsible practices into their business,” he said, adding that he is one of many working to get the message across. “I’m not the only one doing this; there are thousands and thousands of people with this message, and I think we’re collectively being heard.”
Good to the Last Drop
On the shelf atop his desk at Dean’s Beans headquarters sits a framed photo and handwritten message from Keira Knightley, the fetching co-star of the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
There are a few other photos as well, and they help commemorate Cycon’s small role in the third movie. “I was the ‘puking pirate of Tortuga,’” he proclaimed with a dose of pride, adding that his character earned that unofficial name (it’s in the credits) because in his one and only scene he is throwing up behind Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.
He said it took about eight takes to get things right, meaning considerable practice spitting out a combination of water and piña colada mix.
When asked if there was more acting in his future, Cycon shook his head. He acknowledged that the experience was fun — “and who said social activism can’t be fun?” — but that he plans to “quit while I’m ahead.”
“Besides, I have more important things to do.”
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