Bill Harris jumps with a group in Guatemala.

Bill Harris Jr. was honored with a lifetime achievement award in Americus, Georgia, on March 19, 2018. Photo by Scott Umstattd.

Most of us – if we were lucky – were taught the Golden Rule at home as we were growing up.  “Do unto others, as you would have done to you.”  But applying that rule to business is a concept many of us have learned from Bill Harris Jr.

Bill thinks of business a little differently than most.  Rather than solely generate wealth, a business can also be a tool to build relationships that ultimately make the world a better place.  It can be a conduit for creating win-wins between people.

While finding his footing in the coffee industry, Bill has built his businesses to do just that- move humbly and graciously through the world- charming and inspiring customers, staffers and suppliers with sincere, empathetic human-to-human interactions.  Bill has what Stephen Covey described as “an abundance mentality”- a perspective that believes there’s enough of everything- wealth, credit, power, recognition – to pass around. It’s the opposite of the scarcity mentality that suggests someone must lose for another to win.

Bill teaches us that if we open our minds and hearts to listen to the needs of others, while also pursuing our own life’s calling, there will be enough of everything to go around.

It’s his approach to business and his commitment to community – both at home and abroad – that was highlighted March 19, 2018, during the Americus-Sumter County Chamber of Commerce’s 98th annual awards ceremony where Bill was honored with the Sparky Reeves Lifetime Achievement award.

Born and raised in Americus, Georgia, Bill is a 1980 graduate of Southland Academy and a 1984 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology.  After working in finance with the Trust Company in Atlanta, Bill returned to Americus to work as CEO of Glover Foods, a family business.

After returning home, Bill began leading international volunteer trips with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village.  He vetted and organized groups of volunteer travelers to build homes all over the world. He even organized a “Botswana Bike & Build” where volunteers added a cycling component to their adventure- cycling hundreds of miles across Botswana to reach their Habitat build-site (fueled all the way by brother Lee’s cooking).

In 1997, he met a coffee farmer on a Habitat build in Guatemala.  He quickly understood that an indirect supply chain between the coffee farmer and the coffee consumer meant that very little money was getting back to the coffee farmer.  The farmer is responsible for the majority of the work that goes into producing a cup of coffee.   So, he founded Café Campesino in 1998 and imported a container of green coffee, which is about 40,000 pounds, directly from a farmer group in Guatemala with the intention of getting more money back to the small-scale coffee farmer.

As a smart, ambitious, young businessman would, he had made ample sales calls prior to purchasing the container to ensure that roasters would buy his newly imported coffee when it arrived.  But when the container landed, and he followed up on those calls, he realized that there had been a misunderstanding.  Coffee is often sold to roasters months-  even years – in advance, and the roasters who said they would buy his coffee were making commitments for next year’s harvest.  And this coffee would certainly not be fresh for next year.  He was stuck with a container of coffee.  He picked up odd-jobs to help pay for the container, including teaching Elderhostel visitors to Americus how to use the internet.  He retooled his plan.

Soon Bill would seek out other coffee companies who shared his world views to help him purchase containers of coffee.  He would only buy certified organic, fair trade coffees.  He would only buy coffee from small-scale farmer cooperatives where farmers would be co-owners of their own coffee businesses.

Meanwhile, folks in Americus wanted to drink Café Campesino’s coffee.  Bill needed to do more than import coffee to satisfy his local community.  He needed to roast it, too.

He hired a New Orleans-based company to roast on behalf of Café Campesino while he got set-up in Americus to roast locally.  About the same time, Bill had found a group of five other coffee companies that would help him purchase containers of coffee directly from small-scale farmers.

They organized into the world’s first importing cooperative of roasters, Cooperative Coffees.  Businesses that would have naturally been competitors, decided to work together to create win-wins along the coffee supply chain.   From its headquarters on Lamar St. in Americus, Cooperative Coffees has pulled together 20 members in the U.S. and Canada and proven that a collaborative business model can not only work but thrive.

Since it was founded in December 1999, Cooperative Coffees has imported more than 42 million pounds of certified organic, fair trade coffee directly from small-scale coffee farmers.

It has paid coffee farmers more than $75 million, and directly impacted remote villages in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

Bill Harris helps negotiate the first contract with Maya Vinic coffee farmers’ cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico.

Café Campesino has also grown in the 20 years since it was founded.  It opened a coffee shop in Americus in 2008 and acquired a second roastery in Gainesville Fla., in 2009.  Between its two roasting locations, it roasts more than 200,000 pounds of coffee annually, importing all of its coffee through Cooperative Coffees.

Under Bill’s leadership, Café Campesino has also invested in the coffee retail experience- developing an internationally certified education center that trains professional baristas to brew and prepare coffee in Americus and relocating its coffee house into a historic building in downtown Americus.

Its roasting and coffee house operations have an estimated economic impact of more than $10 million annually in Americus and Sumter County.

But Bill didn’t stop at building two successful coffee businesses.  In 2014, he partnered with John Stovall and Clay Chester to open Americus Living, a local real estate company that redevelops rental property in historic downtown Americus.  In an effort to “thank” Charles Wheatley for his charitable donations to the Americus community, Americus Living renovated the original offices of Mr. Wheatley and opened a commercial space that now houses other local entrepreneurs including Mobile Glassblowing Studios and Tepuy Activewear.  In addition to that commercial space, the company has developed more than 40 rentals in Americus- focusing primarily on downtown, historic properties.

If Bill took credit for his successes, he would say that he is standing on the shoulders of giants- people like Charles Wheatley, Millard Fuller, Clarence Jordan and his own parents.  But Bill would probably not take credit for these successes.  He would remind us these were all collaborative experiences.  “It’s not about me.  It’s about all of us,” he would say. “We have done this together.”

But it takes a giant to pick up the baton of giants.   And it takes a truly remarkable human to inspire others to become their best selves.  With his intellect, boundless optimism and relentless commitment to use business “as a force for good,” Bill Harris Jr. continues to inspire nearly everyone he meets.  His legacy will endure not only for the citizens of Americus and Sumter County, but for thousands of others around the world.  We are grateful for his leadership.

Learn more about Cooperative Coffees’s story in this short video.

The farmers of Maya Vinic continue to supply us with coffee.  Purchase it here.

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