Q&A: James Cummiskey, The Former US Marine Who Wants To Reform Colombia's Coffee Trade

 @PReyMallen on March 19 2014 11:55 AM
James Cummiskey2
James Cummiskey, Managing Director of Cima. Courtesy of James Cummiskey

James Cummiskey knows about change. A former Marine and start-up executive, the Alaska native’s life turned 180 degrees four years ago, when he decided he needed to switch scenery and moved to Colombia on a whim.

A mere look at the country convinced him to stay. With a steady, growing economy and improving governance, Colombia proved to be the perfect post-early-retirement adventure for the 54-year-old Cummiskey.

Q: So how did you end up in Colombia?

That is an interesting story!  A buddy of mine had been insisting for several years that I should move here, he was adamant that I would love it. Initially I just couldn’t do it for personal and family reasons, but then I got divorced, he asked me again and I though, sure why not? So four years ago I took up on his offer, and instantly fell in love.

I had traveled a lot, but somehow Medellín trapped me like no other place had before. It is just really so exotic and cool, and the people are the most amazing people in the world. This is just a dreamland! And there is really so much opportunity down here.

Q: What kind of opportunities?

Colombia is right now one of the best countries on earth to do business.  The economy is growing at an accelerated rate, the homicide rate is the lowest in 20 years, and it is even lower than in major U.S. cities. So, this is an environment with amazing potential, amazing people and I just could not let it pass.

Q: Why did you decide to move to Medellín as opposed to Bogotá?

The weather. What can I say, I am an Alaskan -- and the weather here it is beautiful, it is an eternal spring. Bogotá is much colder. And besides, there is just something about Medellín, its attitude, the people, that bewitches you.

Q: What moved you to try your hand in the coffee industry?

Well, in all honesty, I wasn’t planning to move here for business. My idea was to live my retirement here. But there was the caveat, and it is that to live in Colombia you need a visa. And a way to get a visa is to start a business. And even though my first instinct was to find a different way, as my time in the country progressed I became aware of the reality of the coffee industry. And I almost couldn’t believe it, because the coffee industry is so broken, in almost every level! It is the most inefficient industry I have ever seen.

Q: How so?

There are two main problems that I see in the industry. First, is that 99 percent of coffee is homogenized, which means it is mixed. The equivalent to this would be, let's say, in the wine industry -- which 40 or 50 years ago was what coffee is today. So back then wine was also mixed, but now the industry has reached a point of development [where] we celebrate and cherish individual vineyards, without getting the grapes mixed. That is what is going to happen with coffee. But it won’t until we stop mixing the beans, and all of that uniqueness and hard work gets lost.

And the other, which is the bottom line really for the crisis of the industry, is that the farmer always gets screwed. They get the smallest percentage of profits, around 5 percent, and, on top of that, watch how the tradition of the industry is smashed.

So, four years ago, my partner and I started Cima,  Spanish for “summit,” to try and work it from the inside.

Q: How do you hope to improve the coffee industry?

 Well, for once, we never mix coffee beans. We strive to maintain that pureness, so that the bean identity is preserved and we build that relationship between the consumer and the tradition.

Our second goal [is] we want to eliminate all intermediaries, including ourselves, between the consumer and the producer of the coffee, so more profit goes to the farmers. In every bag of our coffee, there is a code that connects it directly to the farmer, so the consumer knows exactly where it came from. You can even watch videos of the farm in real time online, you can ask them questions through us. It has happened that I am there in the farm with my cell phone and I get a comment from a customer about a particular cup of coffee, and I know exactly who to give it to.

Q: Who are your consumers?

The thing about coffee is that three billion people drink it. After water, is the most widely consumed drink in the world. So there is immense potential for clientele.

We started out selling green beans, which are usually shipped from Colombia, and other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia to the countries were it is consumed, and the beans are roasted there. So our initial clients were professional roasters.

Now we are looking at diversifying into the other customers, the consumers. We are becoming our own roasters. The thing with coffee is that, unlike wine, it has no scoring system, no way for consumers to trust the quality of the coffee. So we are trying to create one, too.

Q: As a coffee entrepreneur in Colombia, what do you think about Starbucks opening its first store in Bogotá?

That will be really interesting when it happens, certainly. It will not be the first chain in Colombia, that would be Juan Valdez, but it will be a good addition I believe. Starbucks is such a successful model -- it introduced Americans to the good coffee culture, because their product is actually good! What Starbucks has done phenomenally is the creation of the “third space,” as they call their stores, the place to unwind from your home and the offic-, the creation of a particular environment in which to enjoy the coffee. And it will be interesting to see how that plugs in with the Colombian people.  

Join the Discussion