Sprudge.com can now report that Cosimo Libardo, president of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe and longtime Director of Sales & Marketing at Nuova Simonelli, has accepted a new position as Managing Director for Toby’s Estate Coffee, a multinational coffee roaster, importer and farming operation based in Sydney, Australia. Mr. Libardo’s transition brings with it plans for continued international expansion of the brand, which currently has cafe locations in Singapore, New York City, and across Australia. Toby’s Estate was founded by Toby Smith in 1998, and is now a part of the Cerebos portfolio of international hospitality brands.
With his departure from Nuova Simonelli and Italy fast approaching, Cosimo Libardo sat down with Sprudge for an interview from his home in Ancona, Italy.
So you’re moving to Australia! When are you going?
I’m going to Australia on the 10th of November, and I will start my new role officially on the 17th of November.
Tell us more about your new role with Toby’s Estate, and what this means for the expansion of that brand.
I am going to be the Managing Director for Toby’s Estate. I expect it to be a global role, meaning that I’ll be in charge of developing the Toby’s brand in Australia and outside of Australia. As managing director, that is sort of the idea—and the point of getting someone with my profile—is to be in the position to grow Toby’s Estate also outside of Australia. There is already business in Asia and the US happening–with local partners in the US that do a great job. The United States is a very interesting area for a company like Toby’s.
However, with these expansion efforts, there’s nothing that has been already put on paper. I will need to know more about the company! It’s too early to say “we’ll go here” or “we’ll do that.” For me everything is about to start with a small portion of information and I will need a lot more. But I can tell you definitely that I see Asia as the primary market outside of Australia for Toby’s to expand.
You’re leaving a decade plus of time with Nuova Simonelli and moving to a very different company. Why make the switch from manufacturing to retail?
For a number of reasons. First of all, let’s say professionally I feel that in manufacturing I’m not going to find companies that are…I don’t mean to say “better than Simonelli”, but I mean that would give me new challenges or be more intersting than what I’ve done up to now.
When you turn 40, something in your mind clicks, and you understand that the rest of your life is not that long possibly. So you start to think about, “Let’s do something fun. Let’s do something that motivates.” So for me, it is the coffee much more than the machines that gives me great motivation. Obviously I come from the machine industry—a place of plastic and metal and silicone—and it’s fun understanding that in a lot of different ways, the way a machine can transform a product. But what I relate to is coffee and not the machine per se.
So working with a roaster that has a plantation in Panama? That’s a change! You can get burgers, eggs, salads, anything at Toby’s. They have a menu that is incredible, and so there’s lots to learn there. Managing retail, the shops, is an experience that I am excited for, because Toby’s is very Australian, but they’ve got something slightly different from other Australian companies. I think there is a lot of potential there, and a lot of potential for exporting the model. It’s a great place to be now where specialty coffee is growing, and this will give me the chance to express myself and have fun while I do that.
At the end of the day I feel I’ve done the time in the espresso machine industry and now it is time for a change.
What challenges do you expect?
The challenges will be in understanding the business first, learning in the beginning before you can say something or judge anything. For me, I’m a bit of a coffee geek, so I can see myself spending time with the roasters and the baristas, just sucking knowledge out of them. I can see myself wanting to learn all brew methods and learning things that are very detailed about coffee. But I enjoy the HR part of the business as well—companies are made of people, after all.
A challenge for me will be cultural. Understanding the culture of the company in the beginning and not trying to influence or change it. To be neutral and listen.
This is already a multinational company. There’s a crew in Singapore, and we’re open already in a few other countries. So I know how to work with Italians but not yet with Australians and Asian countries. This is a very multinational place and for me to learn and experience that will be a challenge.
But the real challenge is retail, learning the tricks of the business in the retail settings. Remember, there’s a lot of people in there including Toby himself that will help me. It’s a competent team of people inside. The company is doing very well, and the good thing is, I am not required to go there to rescue the situation.
What’s your vision for working with Toby’s?
My vision, I mean, I have ideas in mind, and goals as well, but vision is a big word. Because vision should become also the part of the resources you have available and need to evaluate a lot of other factors.
Toby’s has the potential to be a great influencer. It’s an Australian company but has shown the ability to find partners and adapt to a local culture, and influence it, too. Toby’s in that sense has a chance to have a global presence that is not becoming a chain, but having an influence at a global level, in the specialty coffee segment. And I like the fact that they deal with foods the same way they deal with coffee—there’s an attention to detail that is quite interesting. I’ve never had food experiences that were that good in other coffee shops.
How do you feel about moving from Italy to Australia?
Culturally it’s going to be different. But I like Australia, and I’ve been several times, and I enjoy every time I visit. As a tourist or business traveler you see certain portions, and I imagine that certain things won’t be as expected, but I like the relaxed approach that I perceive in Australia. One of the things I like the most is that it’s a positive society with ethics. The common good is always taken into account when doing business. And people get very vocal about it when they feel someone is not doing that. I like that Australia is a society that is working, and everything can be discussed and argued. I do think that Australia is one of the best societies on the planet right now. I appreciate the possibility to grow my kids there and have my family there.
I’ve lived most of my life in Ancona, where Nuova Simonelli is based, but in the last 17 years I’ve been living worldwide. I consider myself a citizen of the world. I’m Italian but I’ve developed a mentality that makes me think, I don’t know what I am! I’m a mix, business-wise and in the way I approach things. I am very different from a typical Italian, in terms of how I see things, and that’s because of the time I’ve spent in the US and elsewhere, traveling and doing business.
So Australia seems like a natural fit—it’s like a mix between Italy and the US. In the lifestyle and the mentality I find it sort of a mix between my two reference points.
Will you still be involved in the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe? Talk to us about what moving to Australia means for that role.
I am currently President of SCAE, and the Director of SCAE is David Veal. I’m the politician, but the Director is the one that makes things happen. So I am President of SCAE, and I have a full commitment from SCAE and Toby’s that I’ll travel back and forth for meetings until June 2015 and the annual SCAE event in Gothenberg. After that I will likely not continue on the SCAE board. My goal is to create something and see it grow—I don’t want to be there and control everything and have a presence in every decision for the rest of my life. I don’t want it to become Cosimo’s SCAE or anyone else’s SCAE, because I feel like most of the organizations that fail over the long term do so out of a desire to control a lot of growth from a mentality and quality point of view.
So for me to give an input or to help create the Barista Camp in Greece, I have been acting like the glue, trying to keep the talent together. This is what I’ve been doing, not much more. They’ve done the rest and everything else. But to make it happen and deliver something that did not exist before, this is what really matters to me, not being president. Being president merely gave me the opportunity to do that.
But over the last several years you’ve become a fixture at global coffee events. Will your presence at these events continue after your departure?
That’s the part that scares me the most. Obviously, theoretically, I will have no reason to go to the next WBC in 2015—it will make no sense business-wise. I know that Toby’s and companies associated within the same group in Australia want to be a part of these events though, and I do see myself as a part of them, of course. It’s a community and I want to keep being a part. It’s important to me. So if you ask me today what kind of presence that will be, and how often I will attend, or if I’ll be able to be a part of it like I was before, that’s going to be difficult. But I definitely see myself as staying part of that community.
Trends and models of service developed in Australian cafes are influencing the whole world right now. Do you think we’ll see more professionals from Europe and America moving to Australia like you’re about to?
It is already happening. I think in Australia you have one of the best experiences and best variety of experiences, the quality on average is like…it’s an epiphany. It’s evolving in a way that’s going to saturate very soon internally and that means you need to bring it outside of Australia. So I imagine that Australians will start looking more and more for professionals from around the world.
In Asia and London there is a huge impact from Australia on the coffee cultures, and in New York, too, although do a lesser degree. Australians have done an incredible job reinventing the format. They’re able to make something work there that’s not really working economically in other countries—there have been attempts but the way they designed their format, and the different formats, and the attention they’ve gotten from consumers, that’s contributing to changing models across the planet.
I imagine that Australian companies will start acquiring professionals from Europe, from the US, because they have the money, they have the capital to do so. I’m already making this choice, so I am biased, but think of it this way: if you’re a professional that can have that experience, being exposed to something new and to be paid well, and get value for what you know and be part of something that works, why wouldn’t you do it? Especially in a place like Australia, where there’s cities like Sydney and Melbourne that are just fantastic places.