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The entrepreneur making coffee for the people

It was through watching his parents start their lives over after migrating to Australia that Phillip Di Bella realised he wanted to have control over his destiny when it came to work.

Established in 2002, Di Bella Coffee is now one of Australia’s leading specialty coffee companies, with Di Bella passionate about providing his customers with what he calls ‘the ultimate coffee experience.’

We talked to Di Bella about his passion for coffee, people, and business.

What convinced you to start your own business?

I’m the son of migrants, and before my parents migrated to Australia my father had a fruit business where he bought fruit from the farmers and sold it at the local markets. They were doing very well over there, but my mother decided she would rather come and live in Australia where her family had migrated to, so they packed everything up.

They went from a great life over there where my father worked and my mother stayed at home to Brisbane, where at the time there were only jobs for women. My mum ended up being the only one employed while my dad was looking for a job for a while, with two kids. I was born 11 years later but I grew up hearing that story, and saw my dad working on Sundays to earn more money. I missed out on growing up with my father around on a Sunday, so from an early age I knew I wanted to control my own destiny when it comes time to work.

The point at which I made the conscious decision to open my own business was in 2002, because in the coffee industry you had brands in the marketplace that were really great brands but didn’t back up their brand promise with the quality of their product. Then you had great quality products that had no idea how to create a brand.

I was studying marketing at the time and started to get really into it, and thought there was an opportunity to create a company with an amazing brand and deliver great quality.

I followed the McDonald’s theory – people go to McDonald’s because their product is consistent, it’s the same around the world. I developed a model to build a coffee company that had a great brand, delivered great quality, and delivered it consistently every time.

What mistakes did you make along the way, and how did you learn from them?

The biggest thing is that we started without a strategic plan or roadmap. The first years of business are always head down, bum up, and I think sometimes in the beginning people get lost in the planning and don’t do enough doing. I did a lot of doing at the start but I think the thing I could have done better was make a strategic plan when we began to grow. Our first strategic plan only came into place four years ago.

The other thing was ensuring that our computer system had the capability for our growth, because when your computer system crashes you’re in trouble. That’s in our strategic plan now, making sure we’re continuously improving the systems to support growth. It’s one of our pillars now, because what we didn’t do well was improving our equipment.

How have you managed your personal time and the time you put into the business over the years?

I struggled, and it’s only been in the last three years that I’ve really managed to be able to balance. I joined the Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), which helped me. Life’s broken into the professional, personal, and family areas, and all three need attention.

I was putting all of myself into the professional and for a period there family suffered. As soon as I noticed family was suffering, I started to put a lot more focus into that.

It’s only been in the last six months that I’m learning to put the same amount into me personally. For example, I’ve gained a lot of weight over the last few years that I want to get rid of, and the only way to get rid of it is by giving my personal life the same amount of time that I do my professional life.

But I haven’t met anybody yet – and I’ve met some very successful people – that has been able to give those three areas of their life the same attention during the start-up or building period of their business.

You’re very involved in the Brisbane community – what role do you think business owners have to play in their local communities?

The overarching reason for my involvement is people. People is my business. I always talk about us being in the people business, not in the coffee business, because it’s not coffee that will buy coffee, it’s people.

So I ask of my team and myself to become experts with people. If you’re going to be a people company, that also means you need to share your success and get involved in the community, because it’s a responsibility. I’ve got the capability and the time to teach people about entrepreneurship and business, and also to give to charity. That all ties into the area of people.

I’m a young businessman, I established my company at 26 as a one-man operation, and I had no formal qualifications on budgeting and planning and strategy. A few years ago I saw an opportunity with Brisbane’s Lord Mayor at the time [Campbell Newman], he made me community chairman of the Queen St Mall. That was six years ago and I’m still chairman, and we’ve done some amazing things. We’re the first mall in the world to become non-smoking, we’ve got fresh farmer’s markets, we implemented cameras with speakers attached to them which brought down our crime rate.

I was able to not only share my entrepreneurial spirit and ideologies with a community, but I was also learning at the same time how to run a boardroom and budgeting and forecasting and strategy. These days it’s all about ‘what’s in it for me’, but it’s a two way street. The community positions enable me to put myself in learning mode, which is so important.

You have a focus on mentoring staff and young entrepreneurs – why is that?

As my team’s grown the digital economy has grown too, so I’ve been able to use digital to mentor. I present workshops every quarter to our team across Australia and internationally, and I visit each of our operations every year to work with the teams one on one. I do that so they’re getting their shared vision from the founder of the company. I make sure that our managers are working closely with them too.

Once a year we also do a skills gap analysis and get the team to identify what their skills gap is, and to research what courses or tools they believe they need and how we can assist.

The culture in this company is important. We set the vision, but it’s the staff’s responsibility to let us know what tools they need to deliver the best they can deliver. We want to support our teams; we don’t believe in putting them up for failure. It’s a cultural thing.

What tips do you have for young entrepreneurs?

You need to constantly be in learning mode, not only when you’re starting, but when you’re running your business as well.

You have to have a very clear vision before starting a business. My vision starting Di Bella was to provide the ultimate coffee experience.

You also need to have a passion for that vision. I am so passionate about the ultimate coffee experience, it’s what keeps me going every day. That means my team has to be a team of experts, it means you won’t find our product on a supermarket shelf because that’s not the ultimate coffee experience. It means we train all of the baristas that use our product. That passion fuels the vision.

The third thing is having a strong brand, which allows me to deliver on the vision. Our brand at Di Bella is ‘from crop to cup, we know coffee’, which means we control the whole process, and that’s our brand. I say to people when they’re going into business, write down what your vision is and what you see your business being in five or ten years. Write down what you’re passionate about, and what your brand is going to stand for.

Those are the three things you really need to be successful.

Gina Baldassarre

Gina Baldassarre

Gina is a journalist at Dynamic Business. She enjoys learning to ice skate and collecting sappy inspirational quotes.

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