At the headquarters of Illycaffè in Trieste, in the north-east corner of Italy, the business centres on the motto “from the bean to the cup”.
The phrase encapsulates the strategy behind one of Italy’s most recognisable brands, as well as the company-sponsored masters degree in Coffee Economics and Science.
It would be tempting but mistaken to assume that behind the pompous name lies a soft programme heavy on coffee drinking and light on economics and science. The five-month English-language programme uses university professors, has 400 hours of classroom work split over 20 courses and is fully accredited by the Italian university system.
The Ernesto Illy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the man who made Illycaffè the powerhouse it is today with 800 employees and sales last year of €342m, is behind the programme and provides the facilities and several full-time staff. The professors come from universities in Trieste and nearby Udine and there are many guest lecturers, including some from the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.
“As far as we know there is nothing similar anywhere in the world,” says Roberto Morelli, director of the Illy Foundation and masters programme.
The course curriculum covers agronomy, the transformation of the raw green bean to the final product and the economics of coffee, including courses on marketing, finance and how to use futures to get the best price for raw materials.
A considerable amount of time is dedicated to hands-on training such as how to produce the perfect cappuccino, steamed milk flower design included.
On entering the Illycaffè headquarters, visitors are engulfed by the aroma of coffee emanating from a coffee bar in the middle of the room. The bar is the company’s answer to the water cooler and employees gather throughout the day to drink their espresso, cappuccino or coffee drink of choice. On one side sits a shiny, large coffee machine from 1935, billed as the first modern espresso maker.
With Illycaffè roasting its nine varieties of Arabica in the same building as the programme and with a warehouse the size of eight football pitches storing raw beans across the street, exposure is complete.
The course, which costs €15,000, has 20 students this year, about 90 per cent of them from coffee-producing countries. The class included students from El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, India and Italy.
Mr Morelli says the idea is that students will return to their home country and disseminate the knowledge they gained in Trieste.
The Illy Foundation invests about €175,000 annually in the course, mostly through the seven full and several partial scholarships it offers to students from coffee-producing countries. Mr Morelli says the investment is amply recouped through the knowhow and other intangibles received.
“For us it is a positive to be connected to talented, high-potential young people in the industry from around the world who might one day join the company,” says Mr Morelli. “We work closely with the students on their final thesis so we are exposed to new ideas. In addition, the masters has allowed us to create a community of people around the world who become Illycaffè ambassadors and to establish relationships with major universities.”
The lectures by Illycaffè employees bring the world of coffee into the classroom. A lecture by a professor on supply chain management or the challenges of sourcing raw materials, for example, is complemented by an Illycaffè employee who deals with the topic on a daily basis.
Anna Illy, daughter of Ernesto and vice-president of the foundation, lectures on her experiences running a trial on a bean naturally low in caffeine. In her office, filled with photos including four above her desk of her father, she explains the difficulty of getting this particular bean to grow outside its native Réunion, an Indian Ocean island to the east of Madagascar.
“I teach the students about the need to have an entrepreneurial spirit and a hard head when you are doing a trial,” Ms Illy says with a wry smile. “So far we are losing money on this product, but my father believed in it so we have to go on.”
She is not alone in recalling her father as inspiration. Her brother Andrea Illy, Illycaffè’s chief executive, says: “The masters was a gift to my father who was very much into creating ‘copetition’. Co-operation because you always need that unless your company is a monster and competition because that is your added value and that is what the masters is.”
And in case 400 hours of classes are not enough to ensure that added value, photos and tidbits of information about coffee production – from the bean to the cup, of course – can be found on Illycaffè’s walls.