How to disrupt a family business, without disrupting the family


The daily grind of leading Australia’s No.1 brand for pure coffee can become feisty for Vittoria’s Rolando Schirato.
Key Takeaways
Rolando Schirato, MD Vittoria Coffee and Beverages | Image source: Supplied

When you head up a 75-year-old company, how do you keep things fresh, particularly when it’s a family business?

Rolando Schirato, managing director of Vittoria Food and Beverage, has heard many stories of old family businesses fading into insignificance and he understands part of his role is to make sure the company continues to evolve.

“We’re getting our head around some of the new challenges we are facing. That’s probably the next major focus for me, personally,” he says. “There are a lot of things on my list. Sometimes I have to cool my jets, so to speak.”

Growth can put a lot of strain on a business, operationally, he says.

“You have to nurture things before you move on too quickly. You have to do things properly and you have to have enough ideas in the pipeline. Getting that balance is really important. In a 75-year-old family business, how do I bring disruption?”

When Schirato was 15, he would barista at events for the family business.

Now he speaks to some of the same customers that he served, but as the boss, and he has learned to listen. Customers are the business, Schirato, 39, says.

Coffee culture facts illustration in September 2022
What’s the drip: Coffee culture facts | Illustration by Huw Reynolds

“I went into the managing director role in my early 30s and probably wasn’t ready to have that title to be perfectly honest. I feel like I do now. There are clients who have been with us since I was very young. Being in a family business, it’s good to get external input,” he says.

Schirato says great support has come from being involved in the Young Presidents’ Organization, where CEOs and managing directors from around the world gather for networking and educational opportunities.

“You very quickly notice that you think there are problems that are unique to you that aren’t. Everyone’s having the same problems. Some people might naturally have that business network, but sometimes you don’t and it’s having those conversations that can be invaluable,” he says.

Coffee fix

About 75% of Australians drink at least one cup of coffee a day, according to McCrindle data research.

Vittoria is Australia’s No.1 brand for pure coffee* and Schirato says Covid slowed plans for international growth.

Vittoria assorted fashion cups | Image source: Supplied

“We need to be changing where we need to change, trying to be more adaptable. Moving into areas I think we should move into. I get pushback on that and that can be healthy too. It’s finding that happy medium.”

He describes working with family as “an evolving beast”. “When you are young you are learning, but you get to an age and time where you feel you can challenge more at senior levels and that can create conflict and different views and stimulates the business ultimately.

“There are a lot of things on my list. Sometimes I have to cool my jets so to speak.”

– Rolando Schirato, managing director of Vittoria Food and Beverage

“It can become emotional. You need to know what has made us unique and different and successful and be respectful of that. You look after the core values and the core customers, but you have to have that element of change. It’s a delicate balance. Where people come in and try to change everything and they lose what fundamentally made that business successful – it’s very hard to recover from that.”

Schirato says discussions with his father, Les, can be pretty fiery. “My management team think it’s pretty funny, because they will see me and my old man have some pretty heated debates and then kiss each other goodbye. The difference between a family that can survive in business and one that can’t is how strong that family is outside business.

“We’re a small family, but a close family. That can get you through some of the harder times, arguments and issues. It’s polarising, but fantastic. It’s always in the best interest of the family business and we are ultimately aligned on that. That’s really powerful.”

Back to the future

The business started by supplying high-end restaurants, with many of these partners and alignments now proving to be ambassadors for the brand. “Those long-term customers are some of the best advertisements for our brand, and some of the most authentic ones, too. We’re very fortunate,” he says.

“Complacency is the biggest risk for any business. There’s things we need to evolve on and keep looking for the next thing. The business environment is only getting more competitive and it is changing faster and faster.

“You need to operate a business with a bit of productive paranoia, thinking it could all go the other way tomorrow. It’s important to think about what’s coming and how you position yourself for the future. Who would have expected Covid?  Our grocery business supported our entire business through Covid.”

Doing business post-pandemic has been the most challenging part of his career so far. “Our sales growth has been fantastic, but the bottom line is experiencing coffee prices that have doubled, exchange rate changes, freight costs increasing. There is a lot of complexity.

“Trying to problem solve all of these things takes energy and resources away from other areas of the business. But never let a good crisis go to waste. It’s instilling better disciplines into our business and processes and helping me to manage differently under different scenarios. There’s lessons that we learn. The things that we can control, we are actually getting some great results.”

*IRI Scan data for AU Grocery to 24/07/22

Further reading

Could climate change crimp your coffee consumption?