David Williamson, MD of coffee roaster Matthew Algie dies

21 April 2008 by
David Williamson, MD of coffee roaster Matthew Algie dies

The catering trade has lost one of its most influential beverage suppliers - David Williamson, managing director of Glasgow-based coffee roaster Matthew Algie, has died.

He was only 42, but had made a remarkable impression on the British beverage trade, with many of his former employees and protégés now running significant coffee-supply companies of their own.

David Williamson was a direct descendent of the original Matthew Algie, who founded a roasting business in 1864. David took over the business from his father in 1995, and steered it through a period of quite remarkable growth - not only does the Algie roastery now supply a reported 60% of the UK's four and five-star hotel chains, and customers such as the house of Commons and the Scottish parliament, Pret A Manger and Marks & Spencer, but he also diversified into what were at the time unheard-of areas. He created Espresso Warehouse, now the major wholesaler to the coffee-bar trade, at a time when the concept of such a company seemed to have no reason to it. He formed both the Tinderbox coffee bar chain, and then Progreso, the Fairtrade café chain in which coffee-farmers were given am equal share of the business.

One of the tributes paid to David Williamson was by the manager of his Espresso Warehouse company, Gary McGann, who told Coffee House magazine: "David had an ability to read a market and look forward and see changes coming. His father had seen the potential for growth in filter coffee, and David was probably the first to see the potential for espresso.

"He was on to a lot of things before the rest of us got there - he began Espresso Warehouse when everybody said there was no business for a wholesale company supplying coffee bars. He worked for years to convince people about the importance of freshly-roasted coffee, when nobody saw it as an issue - now, it's the issue that everybody's talking about.

"People were surprised when he recently took on the Clover machine, the $11,000 machine that makes the best possible cup of filter coffee. This wasn't a case of getting on the bandwagon, because he had seen it coming, and had been talking to the manufacturers for at least two years before anyone else had heard of it!

"He was a pioneer of Fairtrade. He pushed very hard for the big caterers to take it up, and more recently he has done a huge amount of work with the Rwandan government, as a result of which we are now involved in exchange work with the country. He was very interested in socially-conscious work - he really did want to give something back."

He most notably did that with the Progreso chain of coffee bars, formed in partnership with Oxfam, and in which growers were given a share of the business. Although Matthew Algie invested in the venture, it took no share of the resulting company, but gave interests to the farmers.

"The original idea came from a meeting with Oxfam and the La Central co-op in Honduras," David Williamson told Coffee House magazine at the time. "A local manager had suggested converting an Oxfam shop in Cambridge, but the 'Oxfam coffee shop' was not seen as the right way forward!"

Instead, a separate ethical coffee-bar business was formed. Matthew Algie put £50,000 into it, and took nothing in return; Oxfam was given 50%, the farmers were given a quarter share, and the rest was dedicated to making money to fund projects in coffee-farming communities.

"He gave a lot of help to other people," confirmed Gary McGann of Espresso Warehouse. "Since he passed away, I have had people say to me: 'I succeeded in my business, with his help - he didn't have to help me, but he did'. Because he was such a private person, a lot of what he did was behind the scenes and nobody knew of it. One well-known coffee roaster has already said that he would not have become a success if it had not been for David's advice and help, and that he wants to be at the funeral to tell David's children that."

As a managing director, David Williamson could also respond to ideas from his staff.

"If you took an idea to him, he would give you the support to see it through," said Gary McGann. "I will miss his ability to be a sounding board, and his ability to share a vision. I have taken ideas to him, and he has asked me to tell him about them - and then said 'right, let's do it'. And if he saw an idea he liked, then he could move fast."

He once notably did so in the formation of the Coffee Police. A discussion about the poor state of British catering coffee led to the suggestion of an enforcement authority which would take up the public's complaints, and do something about them. David formed the Coffee Police, which were actually his own field sales force, dressed in American-style police jackets and equipped with suitably-painted Chrysler Cruisers, and sent them out to investigate consumers' complaints of poor coffee. Typically, it made his point in an entertaining way.

What will the Matthew Algie company be now without its leader?

"People may say that with David, there is no Matthew Algie," acknowledged Gary McGann. "But he has in fact left behind a shared vision, which we all know. It's just sad that he won't see the fruits of what he was working on most recently.

"David really was someone who could see the big picture."

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