Coffee Talk: What This Brewing Family Teaches Us About the Importance of Communication

Kara Perusse
February 13, 2024

When family dynamics intertwine with business strategies, effective communication becomes not just important, but the cornerstone of success. As George Bernard Shaw aptly observed, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” We’ve all experienced moments where we thought we were in sync, only to realize later that our understanding was not aligned.

Initiating Difficult Conversations

Navigating difficult conversations can be particularly challenging, especially for members of the Rising Generation who might feel cultural pressure to refrain from questioning elders or who anticipate the sensitivity of certain issues and may opt to avoid them altogether. Yet, it is often these very conversations that define the fate of family legacies. This reality was illustrated in the journey of the Illy Family and their iconic illycaffè business. At a recent global family enterprise conference, the Wingspan team had the privilege of hearing Riccardo Illy (G3) discuss the origins of the business. Originally, the brand offered multiple coffee blends. However, in an effort to focus on quality and provide customers with the best coffee experience, a young Riccardo made a bold proposal to his father, then the CEO, to eliminate all other blends and only sell their “Specialty” blend, which was their best offering. This decision was not without its challenges.

At the time, the Specialty blend accounted for roughly 50% of all customer accounts, presenting a significant hurdle in the conversation. The prospect of eliminating other blends was met with concern, especially considering that most coffee roasters offer over 20 blends. Riccardo faced a difficult decision and a challenging conversation, pondering what would happen if customers didn’t want to switch or work with a coffee brand that only had one option from which to select.

When Talking Openly Pays Off

Despite the uncertainties, Riccardo’s conviction in prioritizing quality over quantity prevailed. Through open communication, strategic alignment, and a shared vision for excellence, Riccardo effectively steered the conversation towards a decision that has since defined the success of illycaffè. Riccardo and his team were able to switch most customers from other blends to the “Specialty” blend. By concentrating solely on one blend, the brand was able to craft a consistent Italian espresso experience that delighted coffee lovers across over 130 countries with the same unparalleled taste. Today, that singular blend stands as a testament to the power of difficult conversations in shaping the trajectory of family enterprises.

Wingspan’s Perspective: Addressing challenging topics directly fosters stronger bonds, nurtures trust, and catalyzes collective growth. 

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Best Practices for Navigating Difficult Conversations

Steering the Conversation: 

As the dialogue progresses, keep these guiding principles in mind:

Wrapping Up: 

Occasionally, the conversation may require additional attention. This is where follow-up discussions and external perspectives prove invaluable.

Ultimately, mastering the art of difficult conversations isn’t merely about avoiding conflict—it’s about strengthening relationships, fostering innovation, and blazing a trail toward a brighter future for all impacted by a family enterprise: the family, their employees, and society.

Want more content? Read more Wingspan Perspectives.

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About Kara Perusse

Kara supports Wingspan’s partners across all facets of the business. Kara holds a BA in economics from Brown University with a background in real estate advisory and consumer technology.