Bill Bowron was two weeks away from becoming president of a bank in Savannah, Georgia when he got a call from his father in Mountain Brook, Alabama.
“Son, ” his father said, “we just bought the cousins out, I am 69 years old, and I need you to come home and run this company.”
The company is Red Diamond, one of the country’s largest providers of coffees and teas. Bowron has been with the company since 1991, and became president and CEO in 2006 and chairman of the board in 2008. The company was founded in 1906 by William Fitz Donovan as Donovan Provision Co.
“My family has always owned the business, ” Bowron says. “The business now is 112 years old, and we are the second oldest continuously owned family coffee and tea company in the U.S. Luzianne has us by a year.”
Bowron, 64, graduated from Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and from the University of Virginia and has a graduate degree from Rutgers University’s school of banking. He was working on a banking career when the call from his father came.
“I liked banking, and my family had always been in banking, ” Bowron says. “Dad had been a banker before he came here to the coffee company, and my grandfather was No. 2 man at the First National Bank of Birmingham at the time. So I figured it was a good way to learn business.
“In 1975, unfortunately that recession hit us, ” Bowron says, “which was the worst one until the recent one, and all the banking jobs were going by the wayside. I couldn’t find one in Atlanta, so I rolled down to Savannah, where I had four fraternity brothers and four friends I had gone to high school with in Virginia.”
He ultimately took a job with Trust Company of Georgia, which later became SunTrust Bank, and got his start in banking. “They sent me back to get my accounting work, and then they sent me for my graduate banking degree, and it was a great place to learn very solid business principles, and I use them to this day, ” Bowron says.
“But I had a family to feed and so a different bank, AmeriBank in Savannah, hired me, and I was to be the next president of the bank. They had me go out and buy a house that I could entertain in.” Two weeks before he and his family moved in, dad called.
“I always wanted to work with my dad, but he was pretty smart. He said, ‘Son, you need to go out and figure out how business works, and you need to bring something back to the business.’
“And so in 1991, I arrived here in March and until he died in 2008, I had the greatest time of my life with my dad. It gave me a chance to see a side of him that I hadn’t seen, and it was a lot of fun.
“So I got here, and the first thing I found out is that being on one side of the desk with the money you are lending is different than being on the other side of the desk when you’re trying to borrow money.”
But Bowron says his banking experience has served him well in the coffee and tea business.
“All along the way I had to have banking, had to have that experience, and had to have the knowledge of how well-run companies work, and, so, I think my dad was pretty smart to have me work somewhere else first, ” he says.
“I have a son and a daughter who hopefully will be the fifth generation of this company. My daughter works here now as director of strategic marketing, and my son was working here until he was married in August and started school at Emory, getting his MBA. He recently served as an intern at Georgia Pacific in Atlanta, and they have offered him a job when he graduates this coming May, so he is kind of on the same path that I was on.
“And, really, privately held businesses need an infusion of ideas and good business practices, and, certainly, it never hurts to have somebody from the outside have experience when they come in.”
Bowron is an avid soccer fan. He fell in love with soccer when his son played, which led him to become a licensed coach for 18 years. “I thought it was a wonderful way to give back to the community, and the kids respond to coaching in a way that it is just a lot of fun, ” Bowron says.
The company has been the title sponsor of the Red Diamond Classic soccer tournament in Birmingham, and Bowron and other soccer fans helped build Rathmell Sports Park, a six-field complex built on a landfill in Mountain Brook.
The Red Diamond Classic is one of the top 10 youth tournaments in the country and brings in more than 300 teams from around the nation each year. The tournament’s economic impact has reached $100 million in its 19 years, according to figures from the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Red Diamond built a new state-of-the-art facility on 65 acres in Moody that was started in 2006 and opened in 2008, and maintaining staffing at the plant has been a top priority for Bowron.
Bowron says the plant is highly technical and prospective employees are required to take a series of tests before they can apply for a job. “The business is becoming more technical as it moves along and more sophisticated, ” Bowron says.
“We are looking for the people who are excited about life, that are excited about working, who appear to have the characteristics we want, and we will teach them the rest, ” Bowron says. “We have incredible longevity here. It is not uncommon for us to have retirees that have been here 35 or 40 years.”
Bowron says prospective employees need computer skills and an understanding of robotics. “We sponsor a program at Moody High School down the road, and we pay for their ACT and SAT training classes. The reason we do that for the kids that are interested in going to college is because we hope to get some kids coming back who may want to work at Red Diamond, ” Bowron says.
Red Diamond sells coffee and tea to both retail and wholesale customers, and the two products are about even in sales, with more tea going to homes and more coffee going to business customers, according to Bowron. And as in any business, Red Diamond has had to be innovative and stay ahead of the competition.
“We are very proud of the long history of innovation we have here, ” Bowron says. “We introduced the first de-caffeinated tea in the United States, we introduced the first quart-sized tea bag in the South, and we are the largest seller of those. We introduced the first gallon-sized tea bag in the country, we were one of 10 companies who in the late ’70s got together and formed the largest instant coffee company in the country, which was later sold to Coca-Cola. We were the first company to do the brick pack machine; it transformed the industry from paper bag to a brick pack, which kept it fresher. We were the first company in the U.S. to put a valve in their package that allows us to put coffee straight from the roaster to the bag. It is not possible to get a fresher cup of coffee than what we are making.”
The biggest innovation coming in the coffee business, according to Bowron, is cold brewed coffees, and the different flavors that go with those.
“Anybody under 35 is drinking cold brewed. What they are not drinking are the sodas of the past, the canned soft drinks. They are drinking as much coffee and tea as they can get their hands on, ” Bowron says. And that includes Bowron.
“I drink all the good Red Diamond coffee I can get my hands on. I usually have my first cup in the morning, so I can taste what we brewed the day before. It is one of the perks of the business, no pun intended. I usually have about three cups during the day. I like it with a little cream and little sugar.”
And as more and more research emerges that suggests there may be health benefits associated with coffee, such as preventing diabetes or lowering the risk of liver disease or aiding in losing weight, Bowron is quick to agree.
“Well, I don’t know about the losing weight part if you’ve ever seen me, but the health part is actually documented and just like tea, which is an incredibly healthy beverage for you, coffee has been proven to help you with a number of different cancers and cardiovascular problems. So, between the two, I am in the right slot for providing healthy beverages, ” he says.
The hurricanes and tropical storms that have marched across the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico this year have caused some anxiety for Red Diamond.
“We bring in beans from a lot of places around the world, but I would say 80 percent of our coffee comes from Central and South America, and almost all of that coffee comes through the port of New Orleans, so, when those storms started picking up, I brought a month’s worth of coffee out of those warehouses, ” Bowron says.
“We learned after Katrina. With Katrina we didn’t lose as much coffee as we did tea in the water down there. It made the Boston Tea Party look small. Our tea supplier, which has been with us for 70-something years, actually diverted a boat and went out and arranged for a new warehouse in Augusta of all places, ” Bowron says.
And while the switch from banking to beans may seem a bit of a stretch, Bowron says there was never any pressure to join the business. But, he says, “from an early age, I knew I wanted to be in business. Doctors always know very early on that they want to be a physician. I always knew I wanted to be in business. Dad taught me to open my eyes a little bit and make sure I was looking at the future and making sure that the brand remained alive.
“Dad taught me that what you say is what you do. And that you have to be honest in your approach with what you commit to as well, as how you treat other people. He was a true gentleman, and I try every day to be like him.”
Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.
Text by Bill Gerdes