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Illustration of Andrea Illy, chief executive officer and co-owner, Illycaffe SpA. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Andrea Illy, chief executive officer and co-owner, Illycaffe SpA. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Lunch, then coffee, with Andrea Illy: Italy’s chief barista Add to ...

Still, Mr. Illy insists good coffee is at the heart of the Illy caffes. To say that coffee is his passion is like saying Michael Schumacher likes to drive Ferraris. The man is obsessed with the entire business chain, from the Arabica bean production in Ethiopia and Brazil, and the roasting at the Illy plant in Trieste, to the licensing of the Illy caffes and the selection of the artists, like Anish Kapoor, who design Illy’s well-known collection of “artist cups.”

Over lunch in an executive meeting room, Mr. Illy recounts the family’s remarkable history and record of innovation – innovation that it failed to exploit to its full potential, allowing competitors like Nestlé’s Nespresso and Starbucks to create global brands while Illy remained largely stuck in the business-to-business European market.

Lunch is standard Italian fabulous, hustled up by the in-house chefs: Boiled vegetables, prosciutto so delicate it melts in my mouth, risotto, polenta, ravioli, all washed down with a killer Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino, the big Tuscan red owned by his two older brothers, Francesco and Ricardo.

Mr. Illy is 48 and trim with intense blue eyes and short-cropped white hair. He is a chemist by training – “I am not a businessman” – and a fanatic outdoorsman who adores helicopter skiing in British Columbia. The day before we met, he opened the season at Cortina D’Ampezzo, the glamorous ski resort north of Trieste. But he would rather talk about coffee.

Illy was started by his grandfather, Francesco Illy. Francesco, who died before Andrea was born, left Hungary in his late teens and dabbled in spices and high-end chocolate in Vienna and Trieste before switching to coffee. “He wanted to differentiate himself through excellence, no matter what he was doing,” Andrea says.

Innovation was his forte. Francesco invented the second-generation espresso machine, in the mid-1930s, which gave the operator independent control of the water pressure and, crucially, the water temperature. A surviving example sits in the Illy headquarters lobby. Bristling with knobs, handles and valves, it is the size of a diesel engine and it worked.

“The formula that everyone in uses in the world for espresso still now is the formula invented by my grandfather,” Andrea says. “Ninety Celsius degrees and nine atmospheres for the water pressure. The coffee is extremely sensitive to the preparation conditions. If the water is too hot, even 1 degree, it immediately becomes bitter, too cold, it immediately becomes acidic.”

About the same time, Francesco invented pressurized packaging, a process in which inert nitrogen gas was pumped under pressure into bean-filled cans, keeping the beans fresh for a long time. Still a third big innovation, espresso packed into a paper pod, came in 1974, when Ernesto, Francesco’s son and Andrea’s father, was running the show. Illy made the mistake of hanging onto the paper pod too long. That market now belongs to the aluminum capsule that turned Nespresso into a coffee champion.

Still, Illy has developed an upscale international brand that belies its relatively small size. The company, which Andrea vows will always be a family affair, has 800 employees, about €360-million ($490-million) in sales and an operating profit margin of 8 per cent, meaning its raw earnings are about €28-million. In a decade, he sees €1-billion in sales.

Mr. Illy vows never to lose focus on coffee quality as the company doubles in size. That’s why he never sought Fairtrade Foundation certification. “The system was initially a good way to help the growers get a premium price,” he says. “But it never addressed the quality of the product.”

To ensure he gets the best beans, Illy pays a 30-per-cent premium to internal market price in the producing country (Fairtrade also requires a premium price). Paying high prices for the world’s best coffee is essentially the Illy business plan, though there is a new twist to the formula. “I would have been more aggressive in new businesses; we hesitated too much,” he says.

He vows to move more quickly in pushing the company into new markets; for my part, I vow to drink espresso without milk.

CURRICULUM VITAE

BACKGROUND

Age: 51; a chemist by training.

Born in Trieste, grandson of Francesco Illy, Hungarian immigrant who founded Illycaffe in 1933.

Has three teenage daughters.

Wife Elisabetta is a journalist, photographer and

author of the coffee book L’Aroma del Mondo.

CAREER

Joined Illycaffe in 1990, in the quality-control department. Became CEO in 1994.

Grooming fourth generation of Illys. Niece Daria and nephew Ernesto work at the company.

PERSONAL

Loves all outdoor sports, especially heli-skiing. Skis in Revelstoke, B.C., and Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy.

QUOTE

“I love Canada. … I could live there.”

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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