On this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, Ken welcomes Christopher Gallant, a former Bain consultant and current CEO of Chamberlain Coffee. Chris joins us to discuss his experience at Bain & Company, starting his brewery in New York, later corporate strategy roles and what it’s like being the CEO of a rapidly growing Coffee company.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara.
Ken Kanara: I’m Ken Kanara and this is Beyond Consulting, the only podcast focused on your career, health, wealth and life after consulting. This week we welcome Christopher Gallant, CEO of Chamberlain Coffee and also a former Bain consultant into the studio. Before we say “Hi” to Chris, I just want to remind everybody that we are sponsored by ECA Partners, a specialized project staffing and executive search firm focused on former management consultants and private equity. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.
Chris Gallant: Great to be here, thank you.
Ken Kanara: Chris, CEO of Chamberlain Coffee. If I’m not mistaken, I might have seen you guys on The Late Show—that’s kind of a big deal. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you guys ended up on The Late Show.
Chris Gallant: Yes, we were on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon twice last month, and it was great. I joined Chamberlain Coffee about a year ago as CEO. Prior to that I had been in the food and beverage industry for the better part of 15 years, both at big and small companies. I discovered after working at a few big brands that I really enjoyed building and working at smaller companies, so when the recruiters reached out for this role, the company was on fire. They were growing really fast and it seemed like a good place to be, in a segment that continues to grow.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I eventually want to get back to your consulting experience, but I want to start with Chamberlain, Chris. Obviously, you guys are a coffee company, but I know there’s a lot more, so tell us a little about it.
Chris Gallant: Yes! Chamberlain Coffee was started by Emma Chamberlain, she’s a YouTube creator and the face of Gen Z for many brands. Before she started this company, coffee was a real passion for her, so if you take a look back at all of her early videos, they had to do with coffee and cold brew. When she wanted to start a business, she went to her agency and said, “Hey, I’d really love to do something in coffee.” They then found a venture studio who came in, put in some resources, started the brand and they brought me in a year later to run it. It’s growing really strongly and is really resonating with Gen Z, both from the brand we’ve built and the product we’ve made, which is organic, safely-sourced coffee. We have whole beans and ground beans, as well as the number of different formats, like single serve coffee. We’re also expanding outside of that, so we have matcha tea, of which we just released two new flavors last week, so we’re very excited about that and about the product expansion as well.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible, and obviously it’s resonating with Gen Z, but could you tell us a little bit more about what makes Chamberlain so special?
Chris Gallant: Yes, a few things. The first is the quality of the product. It’s mostly sourced from Latin America, all from local collectives and local farmers and it is all organic beans, which is pretty rare for a coffee bean. Product aside, we’ve also built a really nice brand that connects with the Gen Z consumer, with Emma as the forefront spokesperson for it, but more so just a brand that’s resonating—it’s bright, it’s fun, it’s colorful, and people are enjoying it.
Ken Kanara: One hypothesis of mine is that it seems like each generation has an even more discerning palate when it comes to coffee. I mean, I remember I grew up being used to Folger’s, right? The coffee space has evolved.
Chris Gallant: Absolutely, that’s how we think about it as well, with the different waves of coffee. As I was growing up, my folks drank Folgers and Maxwell House. That was in my house. Then, when I started drinking coffee, it was Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks…really the first wave of real premium coffee. We think of that, actually, as the second wave of coffee after Folgers and Maxwell House, but that was the first time premium coffee was available to the masses. Then later we see, with millennials, the start of real craft coffee with Intelligentsia, with Stumptown, with Blue Bottle, and that took off like crazy. What we’re finding is that no one’s really speaking to Gen Z yet. No one’s speaking to what that consumer wants. I don’t necessarily know if it’s the craft of coffee as much as it is about organic, as it is about the sustainable sourcing. That’s who we’re trying to speak to. With Emma resonating and connecting so much with that cohort of consumers, we’re able to piggyback on that and get our message out to Gen Z.
Ken Kanara: Where is Chamberlain being most consumed? Is it at home, in restaurants? What does that look like?
Chris Gallant: Right now we are largely D2C, although we’re starting to push into retail grocery as well, but it’s all for consumption at home. We don’t have food service yet, but that’s on the radar for 2023.
Ken Kanara: Okay, and just because I’m a weird coffee drinker myself, are your customers grinding it at home or does it come pre-ground?
Chris Gallant: We have both. We find a mix of maybe 75% of people are buying pre-ground and about 25% of people who buy beans are buying whole beans. We also find single-serve sachets, basically a tea bag filled with coffee doing really, really well for us.
Ken Kanara: Oh, wow…those are like single serves then?
Chris Gallant: Exactly.
Ken Kanara: Oh, wow.
Chris Gallant: It’s a small French press right in your cup.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I know you guys have been growing like crazy, the first question I have is what’s it like running, let’s say, a decently known, popular coffee brand?
Chris Gallant: It’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of opportunities that come our way because we’ve grown the brand so much, but also because of Emma and people really wanting to connect with her, so it’s a lot of fun, but it it’s a lot of work. The team here is heads down most of the week trying to grow the brand.
Ken Kanara: Well, good stuff. I want to get into your career, in general, but before I do, if you were interested in getting Chamberlain Coffee, where would you go right now?
Chris Gallant: Thank you for the plug, Ken.
Ken Kanara: A not-so-smooth plug, huh (laughs)?
Chris Gallant: I love it, I love it. It’s chamberlaincoffee.com…really easy, or just find our Instagram, @chamberlaincoffee and we’ll direct you to the right place.
Ken Kanara: Okay, awesome.
Chris Gallant: You can take the quiz and find out what the right blend is for you, whether it’s ground, light roast, dark roast, caffeine level…so we’ll help you out if you get to the website.
Ken Kanara: Okay, awesome. We’ll drop the link in the description as well.
Chris Gallant: Thank you.
Ken Kanara: You bet. Okay, now the big question for our listeners: how does one become a CEO of a popular consumer brand starting in consulting? Maybe Chris, you can rewind the tape and start us there?
Chris Gallant: You know, it seems like a linear path when you look back, but it was not quite as linear going through it. In consulting I spent most of the time there working in consumer goods. Part of it was working in the private equity group, at Bain & Company, thinking about diligence projects for private equity clients, and part of it was working for the consumer goods group at Bain. We did everything from those short, four-week sprints on diligence, all the way through to much longer, year-long projects, thinking about how do we structure the relative market distribution in a certain region in bigger companies. I spent a lot of time in food and beverage, which is where I wanted to be. As I was thinking about the next step, my last client was Heineken, and so I left Bain to join the Heineken M&A team after having done about eight months in consulting for them. We spent the better part of two years doing deals throughout Latin America. The biggest deal was when I was worked with Heineken on the acquisition of a company called FEMSA, or what is the brewing arm of a company called FEMSA. They are a big Coke bottler and brewer in Latin America, and the biggest operation in Mexico and Brazil. We bought the Mexican and Brazilian brewing operations, so I spent two years living down in Brazil, in Sao Paulo, working on the deal and then working with the marketing team post-deal. It was a lot of fun for a first experience working for big CPG in-house.
I was thinking about staying on, moving down to Brazil permanently, because I was commuting back and forth between New York and Brazil for those couple years. I decided I wanted to start my own company instead. I was in the beer industry and I knew it well. I moved back to New York full-time to start the Bronx Brewing Company with the partner, and built that up over seven years. It was a great experience. Every job in the company was something I did, from helping my partner brew, to delivering beer, to sales, to finance, HR. It was a great experience really seeing everything from the ground up, a total opposite from working for one of the largest brewers in the world, which was Heineken, to something that is ground up.
We did that over 7 years, I sold that and then moved West to work for Red Bull, where I landed in a group of all former consultants, mostly people from Bain in the Red Bull strategy group and did that for a while. I think going back to such a big company, I realized I was probably better-suited for building, so I started looking for opportunities to build. I found a great kombucha company and ran sales and marketing for them for a while, and then jumped into Chamberlain Coffee, where we are holding on to a rocket ship and growing as fast as we can.
Ken Kanara: When you started Bronx Brewing Company, that was before the whole craft beer phase was the cool thing to do, right?
Chris Gallant: I think when we started there were somewhere around 1200-1300 breweries in the U.S. The last time I checked it’s approaching 10,000.
Ken Kanara: Wow!
Chris Gallant: Yes, it’s been a very, very different landscape over the course of those seven years.
Ken Kanara: I think it makes sense to talk about the differences in your career, because you’ve done it all: a director of strategy and corporate strategy roles, but you’ve also been very entrepreneurial by starting your own company, and now, obviously you’re leading somebody else’s. Can you talk to us about the differences between those types of things and where you’ve gotten the most energy from?
Chris Gallant: Yes. It is wildly different from delivering a keg down to the basement of a New York City restaurant to advising on the due diligence, but there are a lot of skills that can translate. As I look back on consulting, it gave me a few things. One, it let me deep dive into an industry I was really interested in. If you rewind to even before consulting and before business school, I was a software engineer. I really had no experience in consumer goods before I went into Bain. It let me really deep dive, and say, “Hey, I think I’m interested in this, let me explore it for a while.” So that was one. The other thing it did was it gave me a good sense of the different functions within an organization and how they all interact and where I think I could add the most value in the organization. For me it wound up being the commercial side. Then, you just build up a really solid set of skills…just a solid business baseline to really understand how everything functions: how to build a PNL, how that translates to the balance sheet, how that balance sheet translates into the cash flow…you build a really solid set of skills. I think the last thing that was really helpful about consulting was just the network. So now, I’m what…13 years out of consulting, and I still have a solid network with people I can call and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this, can you help me? How are you guys thinking about the commodity market right now, because coffee futures are way up? Help me understand that.”
Ken Kanara: Awesome. Some of our listeners are going to be interested in, call it the “corporate strategy route,” some of our listeners are going to be interested in rolling the dice and betting it all on green like you did with Bronx and running your own company. Could you talk us through the pros and cons of each of those different paths?
Chris Gallant: Yes, the pro of going corporate strategy is I think it’s one step further from consulting in that you still have a huge support network. You have an entire organization to lean on. You have a set of defined projects that you can work on. You have plenty of resources to go in to find data and come up with an answer, and you have good market comps for what you might want to do. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t so much enjoy being in a big organization, but the work was a lot of fun and the people were great. On the flip side, if you think about entrepreneurship, at least the way I thought about it is, I like to build things and so being an entrepreneur let me build. It let me create something, which you don’t really necessarily get at a corporate strategy role. You don’t have a lot of direction, which can be great at times, you can also struggle at times to figure out the path forward that you need to take in various different scenarios. It’s very different and that’s where you’re able to think about connections you made in the past and ask for a little bit of help.
Ken Kanara: Speaking of building things, what advice would you have for folks that are interested in building a brand? You’ve obviously built a brand with Bronx; you’re building now with Emma…what would you suggest?
Chris Gallant: At the risk of sounding trite, authenticity…Everyone in marketing talks about authenticity, but I think the reason, for example, Chamberlain Coffee works so well…it’s authentic. Emma is known for drinking coffee; she’s known for loving cold brew. It’s not a paid spokesperson that’s coming in. For example, we just made a funding announcement. Emma was announced as one of the big investors, so she’s fully invested emotionally, she’s fully invested as well with her passion and loving coffee. She’s invested with her dollars. She still does a lot of the work on social media for us, so it’s her voice. It’s a real authentic brand and people can see that and I think that’s the most important thing. The other piece is about the quality of the product. Emma can bring all these people to our brand, through brand awareness, and she can drive people to the site, but if we have a terrible product, they won’t come back.
Ken Kanara: Sure.
Chris Gallant: I think those are the most important things to me.
Ken Kanara: Especially with a product like yours. In a way, maybe it’s your choice of words, but it’s you’re waking up, it’s the first thing, you’re kind of experiencing… I know for me, my coffee experience matters a lot to me.
Chris Gallant: No, you’re right. It’s a product people consume every day. It’s very personal, there’s a million ways to make coffee and everyone thinks their way is the only way and the right way. It’s so personal it’s so intimate. Absolutely.
Ken Kanara: That’s cool. What about the hard stuff? The stuff that’s like, I mean you mentioned hauling the keg down the stairs of a New York City restaurant…talk us through all the tough stuff of being an entrepreneur and a company leader.
Chris Gallant: Yeah.
Ken Kanara: That list is too long (laughs)?
Chris Gallant: …Just getting chased out of kitchen by chef…the tough stuff about being an entrepreneur…On the flip side, the tough parts are the exciting parts. It’s tough because you are setting the full strategy. You are figuring out what to do. I think that’s the tough part, it’s also very exciting, but you need to figure out the path forward. The other thing that’s a bit of a shock going from a corporate strategy role, or even a consulting role, into being an entrepreneur, is the speed at which you need to make decisions. At a company, there are so many decisions that are happening all the time. You know, Ken, as the CEO of ECA, you’re making decisions all the time, multiple times a day. That’s just very different than consulting. You have to get comfortable with that.
Ken Kanara: Yeah, that’s a great point on the decision making, too. It’s probably way more relevant for you guys just being how consumer facing you are because the things that you do are going to touch, theoretically, millions. Awesome.
The other thing I’m curious about is, for folks that are have gone into consulting and then went into a corporate strategy role and realized this isn’t for them, what advice do you have for them? A lot of our listeners find themselves in that particular position and they want to do something different.
Chris Gallant: I think there are a lot of paths you can take from there. You’re really set up for success and so you can think about going back into consulting. Consulting firms right now…all the big firms: Bain, McKinsey, BCG…they’re all hiring. Certainly if it’s the right moment, you can think about going back into consulting. That’s one. The other piece is that there’s a lot of specialty consulting firms out there, so if you have a specific function you’d like, if you like restructuring and you know consumer goods, if you’d like you know something very you can head to a smaller firm you can keep a focus. Otherwise I’d say, if you’re in corporate strategy, you’ve probably seen a lot of different functions of whatever company you’re at. What resonates with you the most? When you were there, what project did you like to do the most? When I was at Red Bull doing corporate strategy, most of my focus was on the sales side, thinking about how do we sell differently through different channels? How do we structure our team? If you find something you really like, start talking to people in the organization about getting into that function. That’s probably the easiest way.
Ken Kanara: One of the things to admire about the way that you’ve structured your career, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that there’s a passion with beverages. How did you discover that or is that intentional? Could you talk a bit more about that?
Chris Gallant: I’d love to say it was intentional, but I think it was just like I said earlier, when you’re at Bain or any consulting firm, you get the opportunity to see some different things and I discovered pretty early that was what I’d like to do. I thought it was fun challenge to create a consumer-facing product because, in some ways, it’s a lot more difficult to create that consumer brand than it is to create a B2B brand. I really enjoyed that challenge, and I wound up working with a lot of beverage companies and that’s how we ended up there. Along the way, you wind up building a skill set, you wind up building a network within a specific industry. You have institutional, industrial knowledge, so, that’s why I just really enjoyed it and I have that knowledge.
Ken Kanara: That’s great, thanks for sharing that. For listeners, where do you feel like consulting didn’t give you the full breadth of tools to operate in the real world?
Chris Gallant: That’s a good question. I think back to the term, “execution risk,” that you use in consulting. What’s your biggest risk, it’s your execution risk. I think you realize pretty quickly that when you move from strategy into actually executing that strategy, that’s all the difference in the world. You can have the best strategy in the world but if you don’t have the financial resources or the team or the knowledge to execute that strategy properly, there’s so much risk there. I think that was, along with decision-making, that’s a bit of a shock, going from strategy into a functional role, is that execution piece…because so many things come up along the way. As a consultant, you layout the perfect strategy, but there are so many curveballs that come along the way where you need to either adjust, or fully pivot. That was a big piece.
I think the other piece, especially in a startup is the administrative reality. When you leave consulting, all of a sudden there are so many pieces to an organization that you don’t think about that need to be done or are critical, whether that’s accounting, contracts, employment law…all these pieces that were managed for you that you need to start thinking, “Okay, I need to learn how to read contracts because I can’t afford a lawyer for every small thing.”
Ken Kanara: You really can’t help, especially if you’re at a growing company and you’re at the steering wheel, you can’t help but not be in the weeds to a certain extent.
Chris Gallant: Exactly.
Ken Kanara: Awesome. Well, Chris, it’s been awesome having you on. One of the things we ask all of our guests is any resources, either blogs, books, podcasts—obviously Beyond Consulting—that you’ve found useful or resourceful for your career?
Chris Gallant: Yes, there are two of my favorite books and they’re not new, but two business books I really enjoyed. The first is Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz. I really enjoyed that book. I read it at least once a year to remind me of negotiation tactics. It’s so important in every aspect of a functional role that you’ll play. Have you read that one?
Ken Kanara: Yes, I’ve read it. It’s funny, I actually listened to the summarized version…The Blinkist…I don’t know if you ever heard of that app, but I listen to it, I would say every couple of months because I have to remind myself, because I’m naturally a people-pleaser and I want to make people happy and all this stuff, but I’m not inclined to be the way the author is. For me, I have to be reminded of it.
Chris Gallant: No, it’s so helpful and you’re right, unless you practice that on a regular basis it’s really hard to think about it. And I’m with you, I tend to be a people-pleaser and I enjoy talking to people and it’s hard to think about, but you need to do that in this role.
That’s one book and the other is more of a fun book. I really enjoyed Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. It’s one of my favorite business memoirs.
Ken Kanara: I think you’re the second person to actually recommend that book. Believe it or not, I don’t think anybody has mentioned Never Split the Difference yet, so I’m glad you did because I think it’s a great book.
Well, very good. Christopher, thank you so much for joining us. We will definitely put all the relevant information about Chamberlain Coffee in the description. I know you guys are growing rapidly too, so for those former consultants you can check out their careers page as well. For those of you listening for the first time, make sure to subscribe to us on either Spotify, Apple, or Amazon just so that you’re notified of future episodes. Lastly if you want to check out past episodes, it’s going to be beyondconsulting.info. If you want to get in touch with me or anybody else at ECA, it’s going to be eca-partners.com. Chris, thanks so much for joining us…
Chris Gallant: Thanks, Ken.
Ken Kanara: …and for everyone else, we will talk to you next week.