Matt Lamason: for the people, by the Peoples

Source: Peoples

The story of Peoples bringing fair trade coffee to Wellington is a great read. In researching it we uncovered the equally fascinating backstory of founder and owner, Matt Lamason. We’re sharing it here because we think his story provides a great insight about making communities better – here and abroad.  

In 2004 Matt was living in a Newtown flat with a bunch of other young guys. He was looking at committing to a job in the heart of the Wellington political bureaucracy after student days supported by barista work. What’s your mental picture - parties, leering up, vaguely anti-social behaviours?

Well, how about young men with varying degrees of radical Christian fervour, running a foster home for boys?

Newtown Boys Home. Matt far right. Source: Matt Lamason

Matt would say he was a slightly reluctant participant, involved largely because of his flatmate, who was his girlfriend’s brother. Even so, it is not your regular early 20's lifestyle. Their home provided a safe environment for teenage boys - the forgotten ones of what was then the ‘CYFS’ system (Department of Child, Youth and Family Services) that often took abused or neglected children out of their dysfunctional homes. Matt and his mates used their flat and the things they did to pass on life skills and provide a home. They were one cell of ecumenical Christian activists called Urban Vision that embedded themselves in communities. Others cells worked with ‘working women’ in Cuba Street and refugees in Mount Cook. It was a case of helping in your own backyard.

As Matt says “It was pretty high stakes. A big commitment to your community and your people. You had to be there for them. That wasn’t the dominant culture of the day, which was let’s live for today and have a good time and do whatever we want to do.”

We reckon this community giving was not so unusual when you consider Matt’s childhood in Dannevirke. There’s a strong strand of independent thinking, principled action and quietly doing right by others in his whakapapa.

His farming parents helped create a co-operative for wool growers in the 1970’s. It got farmers participating, and therefore earning income, through the entire supply chain - from farm to yarn. It was a bold, brave move at the time involving financial risk and shaking up traditional ways. Forty years later it has attracted over 1,300 farmers to the fold and continues to innovate and advocate for woollen products.

Young Matt. Dannevirke Christian School sports day. Source: Matt Lamason

There was also a strong fundmentalist Christian ethos in the home and in his schooling. Matt and his siblings shared their world with foster children. These uprooted, disoriented and sometimes wayward kids received unconditional love and a comforting routine in the pragmatic Lamason farm environment. His mother was also involved with local Maori and Matt picked up her strong sense of social justice.

Leadership in action. Matt speaking in The Philippines circa 1994/95. Source: Matt Lamason

His view of the world and personal values were possibly also influenced by his grandfather, Phil, who was also on the land - into his nineties.

Squadron Leader Phillip Lamason’s wartime exploits, piloting Stirling and then Lancaster bombers over some of the most heavily defended European targets, earned him DFC and bar (two Distinguished Flying Crosses). But his life-saving bravery shone through even more strongly when he was shot down over France and placed in the brutal Gestapo-run prison camp in Buchenwald.

His leadership in maintaining morale and fearlessly negotiating for food and clothing was hugely important, as was his work to get information smuggled out to the Luftwaffe so they could get him and his RAF comrades out of Buchenwald and into the Luftwaffe-run camp system. A task made more urgent when Lamason learned the Gestapo had issued execution orders for him and his group. The group’s survival was credited to him. He was called ‘a man of true grit, he was the wonderful unsung hero of Buchenwald’ by one of his colleagues, but these heroics remained largely unknown in New Zealand until he was interviewed for a Canadian documentary in 1994.

Another formative influence was a Varsity paper on international development that featured Bangladeshi Mohamed Yunus and his Grameen Bank (Village Bank) that pioneered micro-finance loans to the poor. Matt was struck with the practicality and the impact. It resonated with a young man processing political systems and issues of right, wrong, equality and inequality.

It all came to a head in the Newtown flat when he stood at the crossroads.

Career in the Whip’s Office in Parliament?  No.

Coffee start-up using the fair trade network that was booming overseas but untapped in New Zealand. Yes.

His horrified, but supportive, parents kicked in some capital. Roastery equipment was ordered from Germany and off 23-year-old Matt went.

He had a distinct vision of how he wanted to be different from the rest. Organic. Fair trade. Self-determining. With a conscience.

Confident in his barista and front-of-house skills, he developed a supply line through the Trade Aid organisation based in Christchurch and taught himself roasting and blending skills using the popcorn maker in the flat until the roaster was installed in the garage - much to the amusement of the CYFS boys and flatmates.

 Source: Peoples

Source: Peoples

Matt’s point of difference was sourcing the best organic product and supporting Trade Aid’s mission of ensuring fair trade for the growers. Visiting the co-ops to experience their realities affirmed the business model. Pay a social premium. Share profit through the supply chain – but to the grower, rather than the middlemen.

Matt recalls, “(On) my seminal trip to Nicaragua, I couldn’t speak Spanish, I was just a gringo travelling alone. But that trip up into northern Matagalpa made me a total believer in the value of co-operatives and fair trade. I came back thinking Yeah, this is going to be big in New Zealand. It already was in the States and UK, it was just a matter of time.” He had a distinct vision of how he wanted to be different from the coffee roasters of the day. Organic. Fair trade. Self-determining. With a conscience.

Matt outside the Constable Street cafe. Source: Peoples

Getting a bit of guidance from Mojo’s Steve Gianoutsos and Ewan Cameron from Atomic in Auckland was appreciated, given no one else could be bothered passing on knowledge to this young wannabe. A winning expresso formula was found with a blend of 40 percent Sumatran, 20 percent Colombian, 30 percent Mexican and 10 percent Nicaraguan beans.

Things grew.

Talented kindred souls were recruited to the cause. A roastery site and café was established down the road in Constable Street. Matt thought it emulated Mazagran, a Dunedin favourite of his. Survival and then profit came from increasing volume, so he started to wholesale to a couple of other local cafés, the coffee cart at Massey University that did a storming trade and direct into Government departments. Then the Constable Street building fortutiously came on the market and was bought – with Matt living in the upstairs flat. Intimately part of Newtown life, 24/7.

Throughout all this change Matt’s unwavering focus was on the origin of the coffee – the land it came from and the people who grew it. A twist on President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes to mind - suddenly there was ‘coffee of the people, by the Peoples, for the people.’ It was a niche offering - a quality, organic product, fair trade principles and a brand that told a story.

It also calls to mind the Maori proverb which concludes with the question and statement: He aha te mea nui o tea o. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing in the world. The people, the people, the people.

But entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs. They’re driven by the rush of creating things – overcoming obstacles, innovating on the fly, building something.

Managing is different.

Matt made the courageous call that that the managing part of the business lifecycle was not for him in 2012, when his second child was born. He felt he had given his best in the first three years with all the start-up activity and that he was now holding the business back - and compromising his own world.

He wanted out of day-to-day involvement. He wanted to be solving problems and helping even more people.

 Source: Peoples

Source: Peoples

Remaining as sole owner, he moved to a governance role and passed his baby over to a group of his passionate employees. A Board was formed and a General Manager was appointed from the ranks. They were supported by the dedicated Peoples crew, including long-serving head roaster, Rene Macaulay, who by this time was advancing Matt’s original concept of direct contact with the co-op grower communities through the Trade Aid orgainisation. Rene has got some great observations in the Peoples story here.

The separation was emotionally hard. He felt he risked losing his sense of purpose and identity by stepping into the void. But a move over to the Wairarapa to mind a friend’s house helped. Physical distance created emotional distance. Spending time ‘on’ the business, rather than ‘in’ the business enabled Matt to then focus on more community help.

Source: Peoples

He connected with Arohata Women’s Prison to set up barista training for inmates. It’s not easy to get into the system and earn trust. Lots of risks, lots of bureaucracy, lots of ‘what ifs’.

Source: Peoples

But this is Matt’s happy place - problem solving, making opportunities happen, and making things better for the world. He just relentlessly chips away.  As Matt says of himself  “My childhood set me on a trajectory. I had a heart for it. When my heart is moved by something or someone, it’s usually my best-self responding.”

There is a special Arohata coffee. Buy that and you’re helping too. But, more importantly, it is the hope and life skills the course provides to the inmates and the sense of achievement Peoples staff get in helping.

The training concept has been boldly expanded recently. Matt has joined forces with ex-restauranter Martin Bosley and his cooking school at Rimutaka Men’s Prison. They have formed a trust to create a café in the Upper Hutt suburb of Naenae – a hospitality trade training facility for inmates. Both men passionately believe that equipping inmates with skills, a routine and a work ethic is a crucial part of helping them find their way back into a community. Self-confidence and a work CV are also a vital tools in overcoming the stigma of prison.

Matt says he’s also appreciating working collaboratively. It requires new skills and is different to being a sole-charge leader molding things in his own vision.

Now living on the Kapiti Coast with his partner and three children, Matt continues as the social entrepreneur. The hospitality training will take an enormous amount of energy in the near future, but he’s also refining some thinking around a bio-diesel co-operative, and being on a rural block of land has also got him thinking about what can be done in the food world.

But let’s come back to the last 13 years in the coffee business.

When we ask this very thoughtful and self-critical man what makes him happy about Peoples, he finds it hard to answer. So many things could be even better. But what surfaces is the vibe created in Peoples Newtown café.

He loves the sheer comfort it brings people. The Somalian taxi drivers holding court. The hip and the not so hip. The young. The Boomers. The styled and the natural. The sane and the not-so-sane. He reckons they all feel comforted in the space his vision and energy created.

The Newtown community is a fragile mix of upbeat and despair and of hardship and success. But it’s a community underpinned by a staunch sense of pride and determination. There’s also a gentle, respectful humanity. 

So, in a way, what makes Newtown Newtown is what makes Matt Matt. 

And Peoples is the essence of that.