Lasting Legacy

The big business behind a cup of joe: The first family of coffee

The first family of coffee
The first family of coffee

When it comes to food and drink, it's hard to beat what Italy has to offer: pizza, pasta, ice cream, world-class cheese and wine… the list goes on. A good cup of coffee is another hallmark of Italian gastronomy, and the Illy family has been at the heart of that particular tradition for 83 years.

Illy was founded in 1933 in the port city of Trieste, Italy, by Hungarian born Francesco Illy, who developed the Illetta espresso machine and used pressurization techniques to preserve the taste and aroma of packaged coffee.

Today, the business is a global concern, with Illy coffee now available in 140 countries and served in over 100,000 restaurants and cafes around the world. The company says it employs more than 1,080 people and reported gross revenue of 391 million euros ($436.73 million) in 2014.

"The company was born upon a dream of my grandfather, the founder, to offer the greatest coffee to the world," Andrea Illy, chairman of the company, told CNBC's Lasting Legacy. "He fell in love with coffee in Vienna and then he came to Trieste and decided to stay because he found the city, coffee and his wife. So this is why the roots are so… deeply rooted."

Andrea has been around the business since he was a child and began working in the company's factory when he was just 13 years old. Today, several members of the Illy family are key cogs in the company.

With such a close connection between the family and the business that bears its name, setting boundaries and rules down to ensure everything runs smoothly is hugely important.

"We have very strict family rules, we could not have more than one (person)… per family branch within the same company or area," Daria Illy, coffee systems director at the business, said. "So you would not find two brothers working in the same department, for sure, and for sure not under the direct responsibility of a family member," she added.

Ilya S. Savenok | Getty Images

Co-operation between family members still remains a crucial part of the business, however, with Andrea stating that the family gathers every other month to talk about the business and how it is doing.

"We have always been very collaborative, particularly on the entrepreneurial side in order to share exactly what we want to do with our brand," he said. "Whatever we do is agreed upon together, with unanimous consent between all of us," he added.

While family has been key to the business' success, times are changing. A new CEO from outside the family, Massimiliano Pogliani, was brought in earlier this year.

"When you have large families, sooner or later the companies become too big to be managed by family members," Andrea said. "You have two models of family business, one is family owned, family operated, one is family owned and professionally operated – this is what we want."

One aspect of Pogliani's role is to act as an external mentor to the younger generation of Illys.

"Massimo Pogliani represents an opportunity for the young generation because he can be a mentor, an external one, which is always different from having a family mentor," Andrea added.

For Pogliani's part, family is set to remain central to the business, and a unique part of its appeal to consumers.

"People are not only buying a product," he said. "When you are a branded product you buy the history that is behind this product… you know that this company is real," he went on to add. "There was a Mr Illy at the beginning and there is still a Mr Illy today… it gives this sense of authenticity and integrity that will increase your willingness to pay for that product."

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