In the winter of 2011, Michael Jones left a profitable health care services company that he founded and went in search of meaning. He was 40 years old, a husband and the father. He was a successful Roswell, Ga., businessman fulfilling a childhood dream: making money. And it just didn’t feel right.
“What I thought would be a mountaintop experience that would carry me through the rest of my life lasted about three days,” Jones said. “I felt like maybe I was dreaming about the wrong thing.”
So Jones turned inward, and began trying to understand why his father-in-law, a Jamaican coffee grower, received only $4 of the $80 for which his crop sold in Japan. The solution came together as he met a future partner.
A week or so after leaving his health care business, Jones was introduced to Kenneth Lander, an attorney who had left Georgia to become a Costa Rican coffee farmer.
Troubled that he was not seeing more of the final price of his crop when he sold his coffee beans, Lander had begun roasting his own and then selling them directly to Facebook friends in the United States. Bypassing exporters, importers and brokers, he also opened a coffee shop and sold his product to tourists. When he ran out of beans, he teamed up with other coffee farmers and began shipping even more. The money started to come.
Lander had happened upon a solution: He was turning a profit and educating fellow farmers on best practices so their yield would increase. And in Lander’s story, Jones found the reason for his father-in-law’s struggles. “I was flabbergasted,” he said.
As Lander saw it, fair trade, which guarantees farmers a minimum price, was nothing more than an insurance policy for farmers.
“That’s the real crux of fair trade,” Lander said. “For instance, the fair trade minimum price for a pound of green coffee is $1.41. To grow it and process it, it costs the same thing right now, so the farmer basically breaks even. But that’s not a livelihood.”
By applying a new business model that basically cut out the middleman, through a new business, Thrive Farmers Coffee, Jones was convinced they could take coffee — the No. 1 or 2 export in every country where it is produced — and make it work for both farmers and consumers. Farmers would make more money, allowing them to take better care of their families, and consumers would get a better-quality product.
In addition to helping farmers establish relationships with local processing mills once the beans are shipped here, Thrive handles the roasting, packaging and sales online, at churches, in restaurants and in stores.
Last summer, Thrive went full throttle, retailing its coffee for $14 to $16 a pound, and has since sold more than 300,000 pounds in the U.S. and Canada.
Looking back, Jones said his last 10 years in business were worth it because they prepared him to invest in people’s lives.
“This feeds my soul,” he said.