Episode 13

Andrea Illy

Episode 13

Andrea Illy on the Vast Potential of “Virtuous Agriculture”

Interview by Spencer Bailey

Andrea Illy breathes coffee. Not literally, of course, but coffee has indeed been a part of his being since birth. The third-generation head of Illycaffè, he is the company’s chairman and, with CEO Massimiliano Pogliani, leads the massive global enterprise. With good reason—namely, its high-quality, beautifully packaged products—Illycaffè remains one of the largest coffee operations on the planet, with distribution in 145 countries. Last year, it brought in 483 million euros in revenue.

Andrea’s path to the trade, on some level, was predictable: The company was founded by his grandfather, Francesco, and later run by his father, Ernesto. He entered the business shortly after earning an advanced degree in chemistry from the University of Trieste. Starting at Illycaffè 1990 as a supervisor of quality control, he quickly rose to become CEO in 1994 and in 2005 was named chairman. (He also studied business at SDA Bocconi in Milan and attended other management and executive programs along the way, including one at Harvard Business School.)

In his current role, the 55-year-old continues to commit himself to the brand. Over the past three decades, he has seen Illycaffè surge from a more regional business to an international phenomenon. Not your average executive, Andrea speaks with the wisdom of a philosopher about things like contemporary art, the redemptive power of beauty, and the chemical, biological, agronomical, and physical elements of coffee growing and preparation. More recently, Andrea has been emphasizing the potential—and for Illycaffè, the reality—of “soil-to-soil” coffee production. He calls the concept “virtuous agriculture,” a term he coined to describe a method that combines sustainable farming with a focus, in part, on regenerating the environment by enriching soil with organic carbon.

On this episode of Time Sensitive, Andrea talks with Spencer Bailey about the neurophysiology of beauty, the art and science of coffee, and why Illycaffè had made contemporary art so central to its brand and identity.


Andrea and Bailey discuss the importance of beauty in the world—as well as within the Illycaffè universe—getting into the ancient Greek idea of “kalos kagathos” and neuroaesthetics.

Andrea shares anecdotes about his deep friendship the late Italian art critic Gillo Dorfles and offers his distinctive perspective on contemporary art. He also details the inception of Illycaffè’s three-decade-old series of artist-edition espresso cups and saucers, and talks about collaborating with Sebastião Salgado on a photography project.

Andrea discusses his childhood memories of being raised by coffee-making pioneers.

Andrea speaks about his upward trajectory in the Illycaffè business and reveals his latest initiative, “virtuous agriculture,” which could have vase implications for farming around the world.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Andrea, welcome to Time Sensitive

ANDREA ILLY: Thank you, pleasure to be here.

SB: It’s great to have you here. I’m a big fan of Illycaffé and love coffee.

AI: And I’m a fan of Time Sensitive.

SB: [Laughs] Great, well, I wanted to begin the conversation thinking about beauty. I know that beauty is something that matters deeply to you, not just when talking about coffee beans, but also talking about art, life, beyond. What is your personal definition of beauty? How do you view and think about beauty?

AI: Well, beauty is about perfection, in a sense. We are used, anthropologically speaking, to evaluate things—objects, people, whatever is living or still—from the beauty angle. And we have the tendency to seek absence of defects, particularly in natural products. If you find an apple with the perfect color, with no tint whatsoever, this is the perfect apple, and you can even predict the taste of the apple according to the visual, the look. And the same is true for people. The same is true for animals, like when you look at a dog or a horse. It is unbelievable how vanity is present in nature, both in the living and also in vegetables, because if one natural living being is beautiful, it has a kind of consciousness about this beauty, which is enhancing its own beauty. You don’t necessarily need to be close to civilization, like dogs or horses, to have this vanity; it’s kind of something which is like a karma. And as far as still objects, you seek harmony, the right proportions between shapes. 

Beauty is so important because it’s experiential. It triggers our emotions. But it’s also a way of communicating, because through beauty, you express yourself, and you get the immediate kind of engagement—empathy—from the viewer. This is why beauty is so important to me.

SB: I’m curious about how you view beauty from a business perspective, given that you run one of the largest coffee companies in the world.

AI: Well, beauty is fundamental for your positioning, because if you want to sell the best, you have to be the most beautiful. Ancient Greeks have this word, “kalos kagathos,” which is beauty and goodness fused in one word. And it has a kind of a double meaning—if it is beautiful, it must be good, and vice versa. So it’s signaling—the most effective way of signaling is through beauty. This is why whichever, let’s say, luxury product seeks beauty, no matter if it is durable or consumable, beauty is part of the experience and is a way to position yourself. It’s fundamental because this drives your intangible value, which is about pricing. Why do you go to McDonald’s and feed yourself with less than one dollar per day, in terms of amount of calories, or [why do] you go to the super three Michelin star [restaurant], and you pay up to four hundred, five hundred dollars for a meal? What’s the difference? It’s in the beauty of it. Beauty is a concept which can go beyond the visual. 

SB: Right, it connects to the senses.

AI: It connects to the senses. Actually, in etymological terms, beauty meant goodness—ethical goodness, in a sense—until the end of the seventeenth century. So it’s only recently that beauty has been limited to the visual as a broader concept.

SB: What do you think it is about contemporary society, or the modern day, that led it to be so positioned in terms of the visual?

AI: I’m a little bit, let’s say, disappointed that beauty is becoming exclusive. If you look at this wonderful Zaha Hadid building here across the street [points to 520 West 28th Street to the north outside the window], which is amazing, how many Zaha Hadids do you have, and how many people can really appreciate it? The rest of the world is more and more kind of unsophisticated, and this is something which requires a bigger educational effort. I have to be careful what I say, but let me say that I read something in the press—it’s not my personal opinion, but something which I was surprised to read in the press—that in the United States there is less interest for beauty, also in the way you live your life, the way you dress, the way you experience your daily life, compared to Europe, for instance.

SB: Which has a long history of that.

AI: Which has a long history. So is it something which is part of a kind of assuefaction? I’ll give you an example: Italy is considered to be the land of beauty since millennia, and we’re simply blessed by God with this beauty of the land, with our hills, mountains, lakes, rivers, and the sea. In the middle of this wonderful area, which is the Mediterranean, with all this vegetation, it’s incredible. With three millennia of history in Italy, the best minds came to Italy because of the beauty, and they settled down in order to be inspired by its beauty. Over time, this kind of continuous process built a gigantic cultural heritage through the arts, through architecture, literature, and now we have a country which is like a museum—an open-air museum. If you roam around Italy, you have this kind of feeling. As a consequence of that, Italians are, as you say, assuefaction? You have this word in English? Dependence? Like when you are used to—like when you smoke, you are used to smok[ing], and you need to smoke, but you cannot stop smoking.

SB: It’s a habit.

AI: It’s just a habit, you are used to it, so it’s normal in your life, but you cannot get rid of it. You kind of commoditize. But it would be important to go back to the deep cultural meaning of beauty, which, in a sense, is even spiritual. I know it’s a kind of unknown and very ill-defined territory, but why is beauty so inspirational? Why can you have such a profound emotion, like the Stendhal syndrome in front of a magnificent piece of art, or have a vibration in your stomach because you listen to nice music? Why? We don’t know.

SB: Connected to this, though, is the idea of neuroaesthetics, which you’ve mentioned in a book you wrote, referencing, of course, research by the neuroscientist Semir Zeki. How did you get interested in neuroaesthetics? Where did that come from?

AI: Well, I’m a scientist by background, so I’m interested in anything. Also because I want to find an explanation to everything I experience in my life. I don’t give anything for granted. 

So Semir Zeki helped me explain the neurophysiology of beauty, which is quite interesting. This is why being used to beauty is kind of a self-enriching process, because in our brain, we continue to receive inputs, and then we compare with our mental idea of beauty that we created in our mind, by seeing more and more things and self-educating ourselves. So the higher the sophistication of your mental-beauty concept, the more you are seeking to, let’s say, perfection. This eventually creates an internal tension to creative people. I don’t say that everybody is creative in a way that you need to reproduce beauty. Creative people try to reproduce the mental idea of beauty that they have, and this is a continuous process which continues to power—to nurture—the creative process. I like to joke that beauty might be a perpetual movement. 

SB: [Laughs] Yeah.

AI: Because if you consume resources, commodities, like oil for energy, you burn it, and then it’s not there any longer. On the opposite, you have damage due to the greenhouse gases you emit by burning oil. So you not only consume, you pollute. Beauty is the opposite. You never consume beauty. And this can be testified by the fact that beauty is always, let’s say, your legacy. The best and most beautiful and precious things in life are the ones which stay over the centuries. No matter if it is arts, architecture, or even clothing. Whatever it is, if it is beautiful, if it is precious, it’s conserved. 

So we conserve only the best parts, and only the most beautiful, from our history, since millennia. And this capitalizes itself—it sediments, like sediment—and it continues to inspire the beauty, no matter if you are inspired by ancient times’ beauty, modern, or contemporary, you are continuing to inspire your creativity with the beauty that you inherited from the past.

SB: What you’re really talking about is things that are sort of time-honored, or honoring time. Where do you see beauty kind of in connection to time?

AI: Beauty is eternal. I can tell you a personal story. The Illy logo is a painting by James Rosenquist. James Rosenquist was one of the monsters of pop art. We had the typical habit to redesign, refresh our logo every ten years, in order to maintain it contemporarily. One day, we were really disappointed, because by starting working with contemporary artists for Illy Art Collection, which now became the largest art-item collection in the world—

SB: We’ll get to that in a second.

AI: We completely changed the brand personality, and there was a clash between this beautiful art and our logo. How can you have this disconnection? We said, “We need to do something with our logo.” And we started trying with all these graphics, design, with architecture, and eventually the decision was, “Let’s go to an artist, as simple as that.” When we saw this logo, this painting, by James Rosenquist, our immediate understanding was, “This is eternal. It will never change anymore. Forever.”

SB: What about it is eternal? How does something become eternal?

AI: It becomes eternal when—well, it is a sign of times. Beauty is marking, literally, times. Think about the different cultural and architectural and artistic styles, how they did, literally, benchmark, like milestones, different periods of our history. But there are some beauties which are eternal in the sense that they are adapted to any time.

SB: They’re just right.

AI: They’re just right, they’re just right, yes. There are few things in—it’s a very profound question you ask me. But if you go to a cathedral—think about the cathedral which is still under construction, and they have the challenge to finish it.

SB: Sagrada Familia.

AI: Sagrada Familia. What do you think about “it would be perfect forever?” Even though maybe the architectural style becomes a bit more contemporary, this is a piece of perfection which will be, let’s say, actual forever, even though not contemporary.

SB: I think that’s why the world had such a strong reaction to Notre Dame burning.

AI: Mm-hmm, absolutely. Yes, because you also have to consider the magnitude of these objects. It’s symbolism. If you are, really, the masterpiece in terms of beauty, then it becomes a symbol. And if it’s a symbol, it will be a symbol forever.

SB: I want to bring up Gillo Dorfles in the—

The late Italian art critic Gillo Dorfles, left, with Andrea.

AI: Oh, yes.

SB: —context of this conversation. He was the late art critic, who was also, like you, from Trieste.

AI: And a good friend.

SB: And a good friend. He believed that contemporary art had completely lost its connection with nature. At the same time, he didn’t totally believe in this idea of beauty. I guess in the context of the conversation we’re having, what sort of importance were the ideas—the conversations—you would have with Dorfles?

AI: So Gillo was the inventor of the word “kitsch.” “Kitsch” is about an expression of “just show off,” losing completely the essence of nature, I would say, which is elegance. Un-elegance is kitsch, just for the sake of show-off. This I totally agree with him on. And this kind of pollution did contaminate contemporary art as well, for the specific sake—not all contemporary art, of course, not all—but for the specific sake of impressing: “I want to impress, I want to shock people by seeing an image, and I make it sometimes ugly on purpose because I want to impress.” So this is manipulation, and we both don’t like it. This is why, even though I know it’s perfectly obsolete and completely disconnected, I asked my team, in the contemporary arts, to seek beauty. Because beauty is also about talent. 

Everybody can express ugliness and try to do something “impressive.” I can go walking naked in the street, and then [say], “I did it!” And then we probably have a front page in The New York Times.

SB: [Laughs

AI: So what’s the point? Try to do the Gioconda and then we’ll talk, okay? How much you really need in terms of talent, and culture, and exercise, in order to really do the Gioconda, for instance. 

You know, Gillo was a very angry person. He was really always angry. I interpret his anger as being angry with society becoming more and more decadent from this point of view. And there is a paradox, but it’s mathematically completely logical: the more knowledge we can access, the less we cultivated we are [as a] culture. It’s something that we need to solve one day. Because nowadays the trend is to be very superficial in terms of culture by surfing social media, or not, let’s say, literally studying things, but just “surfing.” And we are still there, but I hope that things will change soon. Because we know that we are reaching a kind of saturation with our world, where this paradigm is not forever. The younger generation is much more intense in the search of authenticity, in the search of, also, this kind of manipulated word “sustainability.” So I think things are going to change, but they will need time, and Gillo will not be there, unfortunately—because he passed away last year [at age 107]—to testimony this change.

SB: What connection do you see between beauty and coffee?

AI: Well, as I wrote in my book The Dream of Coffee, coffee is inspiring beauty due to the places where it comes from. The beauty of the land where coffee is grown is amazing. I wish everybody could go and visit these places which are so peaceful and so beautiful. You really feel this harmony, because it’s so natural. This is one source of beauty. And this word “exotisme” is very rich in terms of kind of inspiration, right, and these are exotic countries, because coffee comes from exotic destinations. This is one. 

And then coffee is typically consumed in very beautiful places. One of the places which made coffee famous and successful to people are cafés. And cafés used to be literally luxurious. You’d go to the café, and everything was glossy, golden, mirrors, marble, beautiful material, elegance. And you were specifically going to cafés to be shown to be in the café and to see who was in the café—this was really the way to live the coffee culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. So it has been at the center of society of the most important scientific revolution, illuminismo, and so on.

Since then, coffee continues to be at the very center of cultural life and social life, to such an extent that it is still the beverage of success in our lives—it’s the beverage of social and professional success. If you want to socialize—“Let’s go and have a coffee”—it’s a first thing you offer, right? If you want to be inspired and perform in your professional life, then you drink a cup of coffee. And this is why it’s so important and so linked to beauty.

SB: With Illy, you have the Illy Art Collection, which started in 1992. You’ve been commissioning these limited-edition coffee cup designs from renowned designers, emerging artists, musicians, filmmakers, so many different people, and I’ll name a few of them here, because I think it’s worth just mentioning that the range goes from Marc Quinn, one of the most recent collaborations; to Robert Wilson; to Alanis Morissette, Yoko Ono, Jeff Koons. How did that project kind of come about? I understand it was your father who started it—

AI: No, it was my brother, Francesco, not my father.

SB: Oh, your brother, okay.

AI: This project started implicitly because—we didn’t know the word “kalos kagathos” at the time—we wanted to make beauty beyond goodness, in order to elevate the coffee experience, and make it more communicable. So this was the intuition. 

My brother Francesco is a creative. He’s an artist. He has been a musician, photographer, sculptor—whatever he does is made with an artistic twist. So he brought this idea, and it has been an amazing success. Because it was also very well done, starting from the collaboration that we started with Matteo Thun, who is a multicultural architect and designer. Matteo Thun is from the German part of Italy, from Bolzano, so he’s kind of middle-European as a culture, but he’s based in Milan, so he’s very much in the design culture of Milan, but he’s very much with the Zen contaminations from Japan and so on. So he really had the cultural suppleness to really be able to express this idea.

And then it was just about execution. It started in the right way by naming it a “collection.” So it has to be a collection—it has to be limited in the number of pieces we produce—and symbolic. I think we have been pretty good in nurturing this project in the last twenty-seven years now, and make it well respected internationally. This created such a strong, let’s say, association with the contemporary arts. We are kind of permanent partner of the Venice Biennale. Even this year, we are the official sponsor. I hope it will continue like that and be eternal.

SB: Do you think the aesthetics of the cup that you drink your coffee from impacts the taste?

AI: Yes, I think so. Because at the end of the day, every experience is polysensual. So every sense adds to the perception and emotion. If I [drink] this wonderful San Pellegrino [points to a green bottle of San Pellegrino on the coffee table in the studio] and the bottle is ugly, my perception will be different compared to what it is in this beautiful glass bottle. The same is true for anything. Any sense, including noise—we are here in this beautiful and quiet space where we can have a nice conversation, because we don’t have any disturbance; if you would have anything disturbing us, it would jeopardize the overall perception. Some people, like me, tend to be those people who confuse the senses, like you can confuse taste with colors and so on …

SB: Synesthesia.

AI: Synesthesia, synesthetic. For sure, in my case, I don’t think I confuse, but I can link. If I see a coffee or a dish or a fruit, I can predict the taste by the color or by the aspect. The only thing that can confuse me is when, just to tell you, in agriculture now, they put ether on fruit in order to develop the color before maturity, so you see a fruit, which apparently you predict will taste in one way, but it was maybe more acidic because it has been artificially painted. These are the connections between visual—particularly visual, because visual is the most powerful, because it is only electrical, right, whereas all other senses you need to translate chemical into electrical in order to get perception, so it’s a long process, and you, of course, decrease the number of bits per second that you get. So this is why the visual is the most powerful perception channel; it enhances any other, including sound, including music.

SB: I want to bring up a couple other projects that you’ve been involved with culturally that I think are relevant and interesting. In 2014, you helped fund a movie with the filmmaker Lesley Chilcott about Costa Rican women who pick coffee beans—the film is called A Small Section of the World. And the year after that you also helped fund Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee, a book that Sebastião Salgado did. Why these projects? And how do you decide which cultural projects to get involved in and help support?

AI: These two projects have something in common, which is coffee growers. We want to show the beauty of people and places where coffee is grown. And this is much to the benefit of the consumer, who can enjoy the beauty of people and places, and to the benefit of those producers, who can be proud of what they are. We’re trying to bring these two stakeholders together, to such an extent that we have this wonderful Ernesto Illy Award, here in New York, which is the epicenter of the consumer society.

Andrea, left, with Philotee Mukiza at the third-annual Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award Gala in New York City in 2018. (Courtesy Illycaffè)

SB: [Laughs]

AI: And we have these twenty-seven growers, coming from the most incredible countries where coffee is grown, to come to New York for the first time in their lives, as a dream. They are simply not even believing that it came true. Here they meet plenty of consumers, so consumers can literally discover another culture and even the physical presence of those coffee growers. At the same time, finally, coffee growers can see somebody drinking their coffee and how they react. And this is, this is—this is love.

SB: That’s really farm-to-table in a whole new way.

AI: And through Sebastião Salgado—I can tell you my story with him. Sebastião was famous to take pictures of, let’s say, to blame poverty, pollution, the bad things happening, particularly in developing countries. So when I met Sebastião, I told him, “You do the most beautiful photographs in life.” But I want you to completely invert your perception. This time, you’re going to pull out the beauty in what you see. I want you to show the beauty of people, of the land, etc. And it worked very well. Soon after, he started his magnificent Genesis project.

SB: Mm-hmm.

AI: I don’t want to say that our work inspired Genesis—for sure not. But Sebastião started with us as a first project, a brand-new mindset for him, from the ugliest things in life to the most beautiful details of nature. Have you seen the Genesis project?

SB: Yes, it’s incredible, yeah.

AI: And with the Costa Rica project, we wanted to represent the same thing. We wanted to show—we wanted to narrate—that you can make it. We wanted to narrate how profound the engagement of coffee growers and what they do can be. Because, you know, people drink a coffee cup like it’s a commodity—they have their caffeine kick, and then they go. Maybe they don’t know or are not even aware of where the coffee comes from, or how much passion and dedication there is behind this cup of coffee. We wanted to really …

SB: Slow it down and understand it, yeah. 

I want to go back in time now, to 1964. You’re in Trieste, young Andrea Illy has been born. I understand you were four years old when you tasted your first cup of coffee.

AI: [Laughs]

SB: And in those days, it took—this is what you write in your book—forty-five minutes, sometimes even an hour to prepare a good cup of coffee.

AI: This was my mother. I was joking that my mother is the engineer of coffee, because she was in charge of the coffee-machine department, and she was always seeking for something new in order to make a better coffee. The coffee pot did not exist yet. Her first experiment was to try to make espresso coffee at home, which was nearly impossible, because the only possibility was to use beans, and we needed a grinder. But there were no home-sized grinders; there were only professional grinders. So it was a kind of a paradox that we had a little tiny espresso machine and a gigantic grinder. And, of course, with these gigantic grinders, it was very difficult to find the right grinding—it was either too coarse or too fine. So she had to do probably ten cups before finding the right grinding and getting a decent espresso. 

She was very precise with her scale, and to precisely measure exactly 6.95 grams in order to get espresso. It was funny. I was a baby. I was watching, and it was very funny. Also, the smell, the sounds—everything was pleasant. I have good memories [of it]. [Laughs]

SB: I’m sure watching it be made over that long period of time—

AI: Every day!

SB: Not forty-five seconds, forty-five minutes! [Laughs] That probably instilled something in you.

AI: Yes, also, because when the cup was perfect, sometimes I was receiving a tip of a spoon in order to taste, with some sugar. I liked the taste as a baby. I was probably two years old when I started experiencing this. And I’ll say that my daughters experienced the same, because my daughters, at two years old, I have pictures—they were preparing espresso with a convenient paper pods machine. They were very happy.

SB: [Laughs]

AI: It’s very good for kids.

SB: I understand in high school, you flunked your first year, and your father kind of gave you a choice. He said, “You can stay in Trieste, become a qualified technician, or go study abroad, change your lifestyle.” We obviously know which path you chose at this stage, but what did that moment mean to you? And how did your training as a chemist shape who you are today?

AI: Well, at this crossroads in my life, I was fourteen years old. I said, “Okay, okay, I have to take responsibility.” This has been my driver. I said, “I want to be responsible. I want to be able to walk in my father’s footsteps and continue what he’s doing. Okay, it’s time to be responsible.” And I completely changed my mindset. I went there, studying, studying, studying like crazy in order to really make it in the best possible way and as soon as possible. 

As far as my studies in chemistry, I chose chemistry because not only did he study chemistry, I thought it was important to be in the same frame of reference as he was. You should consider that the company was still tiny, and a very typical family business, so you had to take over this expertise, knowledge—everything—from your father. So how can you do it if you have a completely different background? And my brother decided not to study the same as my father, so it was either me or nobody. So I said, “Okay, I accept.” 

But on my evaluation, I considered that chemistry is a very good, fundamental discipline for we call it—I don’t know if you can say that in English—“forma mentis.” It’s a kind of way of thinking, way of approaching knowledge, way of addressing problems in your life. It’s a kind of cultural approach, you know what I mean?

SB: Mm-hmm.

AI: Because it gives you a good background in fundamental chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology. I can speak with any scientist, thanks to the fact that I am not overspecialized. If I were a biologist, I would be maybe hyper-specialized in life; if I were a physicist, I would be hyper-specialized. Chemistry is broad enough, because it’s touching any of those aspects. I was happy to do it, because this allows me to kind of direct a multidisciplinary-research approach, which ranges from biology, agronomy, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, whatever. Whatever is necessary. Because in coffee, you have all of that. It’s incredible. We have physics in the percolation of the coffee cup; you have chemistry in the way you roast, or the aroma; you have biology in the way you grow it, and so on. And you have engineering in the way you do the coffee equipment, for instance, or preparation, etc. It’s very multidisciplinary, and I think chemistry was the right choice. I don’t regret it.

SB: You joined Illy’s quality control department in 1990. I understand while you were there, you made some changes to ensure the quality of the coffee. These were inspired, in part, by practices you’d seen happen in Japan—

AI: Yes.

SB: I was curious—what were those practices in Japan?

AI: We completely shifted the paradigm from quality control to “quality assurance.” This was the fundamental change we did. Quality assurance was born in Japan during the huge Japanese success—

SB: The ’80s.

AI: The end of the Second World War, and actually, the paradigm is that quality and quantity go along. It’s not about producing quantity, and checking if the quality’s there—quality is embedded in the production system. Quality control doesn’t make any sense, because quality control has to be embedded in the industrial process. This has been the fundamental cultural shift. I will say beyond cultural shift, because culture, for the people in the plants, to understand they are ultimately responsible for quality—and this is very much an accountability—but also knowing exactly what you are doing, not simply mechanically executing something, but knowing what and how you have to execute things in order to have this quality control. 

But there’s also a knowledge shift, because in order to make this transformation, we needed to objectivize knowledge. So if you have quality control, and you have a lab checking, “Is it good or bad, good, bad, good, bad?” This is the discrimination factor upon the level of expertise of the scientist or technician in the lab, whereas you need to say, “No, no, no, it is good because it has this specification and this controlmeter that you are supposed to control in the production line.” It took us four years to make this transition from quality control to quality assurance.

SB: That was 1994 when you took over the CEO role?

AI: No, this was in 1990, when I entered the company, and when we completed the job in 1994, by accident, it was the same time I became CEO.

SB: How did you transition from chemist to executive? I mean, I imagine there is quite a learning curve.

AI: Oh, yes, this is a good question. A lot of studies. Self-education. Many, many, many books, like crazy. As many as possible business courses at the Bocconi University, and as many possible conferences. I’m really obsessed with knowledge, as I said before, and so I was always kind of behind. Instead of having this knowledge in advance, I tried to study things one by one. This was not necessarily the perfect model, because eventually, in some disciplines, I ended up being good enough from the theoretical point of view, but not good enough from the practical point of view. Take marketing: I could probably write books on marketing—about positioning, about whatever theoretical aspects of marketing. But then the executional one, to really deploy this theory in a way that they are very effective in developing the market, this is a different story. This is why I eventually decided to step down as CEO, when I understood that marketing was becoming such a critical success factor for business, that as a non-marketeer, it was better to give the company leadership to a marketeer, which I did.

SB: How would you describe what you do for Illycaffé now? What’s your vision, your mission?

AI: I’m in kind of a sweet spot because I can think long-term, and I can be the brand ambassador. So I can put my face, my heart, and my brain—everything—into the brand, without being distracted by day-to-day operations, and without being concerned with the level of execution, because I know the company is in very good hands. So, of course, you can do so as long as you have a very, very good relationship with your CEO, which I am fortunate to have. It’s really a symbiosis, what we have, because we nourish each other. This allows me to think long-term, but at the same time, be a mentor for the CEO [Massimiliano Pogliani] in order for him to really build not only the short-/medium-term [plan], but also the long-term one. But at the same time, while I’m thinking about the long-term, he’s my sparring partner: “Hey, did you think maybe this is it too visionary?” or whatever.

SB: I understand you recently went on a sabbatical. Why did you take a sabbatical, and what sort of value do you see in the idea of the sabbatical?

AI: This is a very good question. My philosophy is that business needs to be probably the most responsible part of society, because two-thirds of the economy is made by private-sector businesses. I like this philosophical metaphor of Voltaire: “Cultivate your garden.” If everybody would cultivate his garden, we would have a definitely better world. 

As an ethical business, I want to take responsibility to improve society, and now we have an imperative, which is a decarbonized society. In the next fifty years, we need to revolutionize the world from carbon positive to carbon negative and sequestrate carbon. It’s not only about limiting carbon emissions; it’s about becoming carbon negative, which is a Copernican Revolution we need to do. I said, “Okay, as a responsible company, I have to start now.” We have symbolic deadline, which is our centennial anniversary in 2033, and by 2033, I want my company to be bicarbon-free. So how to make it? Can we buy carbon credit somewhere? No. A circular economy. I would like to sink carbon from the air into somewhere in our own cycles. Where? Soil. So the idea has been to study a soil-to-soil coffee-carbon cycle. 

Coffee as an agricultural product is quite carbon efficient, but it can be carbon negative if you sink organic carbon in the soil, which is the best strategy to sequestrate carbon from the air. And by enriching soil with organic matter, you make it more biodiverse, you have better water conservation, and you build fertility—you literally build soil. If you compare to most of the so-called “conventional agriculture paradigm,” which is using soil as a support to grow plants and by supporting inputs that you give agrochemicals. The idea of carbon-efficient agriculture is that you first build the soil and then crop the plant. And this is highly effective, feasible, possible—it is not necessarily organic. Organic can be regenerative, can be carbon-efficient. 

This is something new. I call it “virtuous agriculture”—I was lucky to find the name. Virtuous is about two virtues, which is: beneficial for the environment and protective against noncommunicable diseases. And, of course, this is a virtuous cycle, combining the two things. It’s an idea that’s now decently defined. I will finalize the idea definition in the next two, three months, and then set up a scientific committee to validate the idea. And if the idea will be validated by them, then we will start planning for the research plan and creating a governance, because luckily, this idea can go beyond coffee. Because coffee is just one of the many agricultural products, and this virtuous agriculture framework can be applied to multiple crops.

SB: Yeah, I mean, I think the idea of cultivating your garden can be applied to anything and everything.

AI: Absolutely, in an environmentally beneficial way, and also in a good-for-your-health [way].

SB: So we started this conversation with beauty, I want to end it with beauty as well. And I’m just curious, what are, in your mind, some of the most beautiful places on Earth that you’ve been to? What are the places that you go to slow down, that you go to unplug, that move you?

AI: [Laughs] Well, I have three things in my mind. The city of Trieste, because there is everything. You have the sea; you have the architecture, which is amazing; and you have the plateau, the land, which is—it’s simply a jewel of beauty as a city. I’m more connected to the beauty of the city from the geographical point of view, let’s say, compared to the cultural one, but of course the culture is also—

SB: Part of the—

AI: —symbiotic with the beauty of the place. And the other places which come to my mind are wine farms. Wineries?

SB: Yeah, vineyards.

AI: And coffee plantations, which are the places where I can really—we have a winery in Tuscany in the middle of Val d’Orcia. [Whispers] Oh my God …

SB: [Laughs

AI: The silence and the natural beauty, uncontaminated—it’s so beautiful. And I find the exact same beauty in the coffee plantations when I visit them, wherever I go, if it’s in Africa, or in India, or in Brazil, or in Central America. This what I love.

SB: Andrea, thank you for coming. It was great to have you here today.

AI: My pleasure. 


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 21, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.