From being an actor on The X-Files to launching Esquires Coffee, Doug Williamson has always given it everything he’s got. While focusing on the franchise’s growth in the UK, he’s now helping the company reach 580 stores globally by 2020
If you ever wonder what Doug Williamson is all about then just remember that he and his co-founder picked penguins as the symbol for Esquires Coffee. “They are 100% community-focused and live and die depending on how well they work together,” he says. “It’s really quite amazing.” Just like the Antarctic avian, the coffee chain recognises the value of working together with the people around you. “It’s our USP and our DNA,” he says. And now, as managing director of Esquires Coffee UK, he’s put collaboration at the heart of the franchise’s aim to become Blighty’s best barista franchise.
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have to look far to find inspiration to launch his own enterprise. “My father was an entrepreneur,” Williamson remembers. “He was actually a franchisee at a company called Steamatic.” While his father’s business would see the family move from Ontario to Saskatchewan and then to Vancouver, Williamson was inspired by his father from the age of 14. “I knew I wanted to be in business,” he says. “Although, I think my dad showed me the privileges and probably shielded me from the challenges and the stress.”
However, despite his adoration for his dad, Williamson almost abandoned his business ambitions for a shot at becoming an actor. “By the time we moved to Vancouver the movie and TV scene was booming,” he said. “These big studios were suddenly setting up in the city and I just started out doing some extra acting gigs and really liked it.” For two years he immersed himself into acting, which saw him clock screen time in iconic shows like The X-Files, MacGyver, 21 Jump Street and The Twilight Zone. But as his career was taking off and he was increasingly getting casted for larger roles, he began to doubt whether the big screen was really for him. “If you want to be a great actor you really have to commit yourself to the craft,” he says. “So I had to choose what direction my life was going and I chose to stick with the business path because it was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Having chosen to forgo his acting career for a life of entrepreneurialism, Williamson began to study at Kwantlen University College “My original plan was to become an accountant so I could help run my father’s business,” he says. “But I honestly grew really bored with it.” So when the time came to do his BA at Simon Fraser University he switched to marketing and economics. “However, that eventually evolved into me spending my time reading books,” he says. “I did get my education but probably learned more from the great authors out there.”
Nevertheless, his studies did provide him with the opportunity to befriend a fellow student named Gary Buckland. “He wanted to go into business, had some money in a trust fund he wanted to invest and asked me to help him investigate different businesses,” Williamson says. Initially just seeing it as a good exercise for his own future plans, everything changed when they discovered the coffee industry. “Starbucks had just come to Vancouver and we literally stumbled upon it and thought ‘wow, this is really something’,” he says. Inspired by the experience, the duo decided to try their hands at making it in the sector.
But the duo decided to go in a slightly different direction to that of Starbucks’. “We lived in a suburb of Vancouver called Delta and decided to create a coffee concept catering to the suburban market,” he says. Instead of attempting to attract an urban clientele, they aimed to target a more suburban one. Even though they were confident about their idea, one vital piece was missing: the name. “It was really bizarre because most people have the name first,” he says. “And we couldn’t settle on one.”
The solution to this conundrum came to them during a trip to Denver. “I was in charge of the money,” Williamson says. “It was in my wallet and I lost it.” To make things worse, once they’d contacted their family for funds, they were told the transaction would take three days. Instead of checking out micro-breweries, they ended up sitting in their hotel room reading books and living on a predominantly crisps-based diet for three days. Luckily, while reading The Firm by John Grisham he came across the word ‘esquires’. “It just jumped out and I suggested it to Gary and we both went ‘yeah, that’s the name,’” he says.
Armed with the name and a solid business plan, the co-founders set out to find their first site. However, this would prove a particularly difficult challenge. “The landlords kept rejecting us because we were two 23-year-old kids with no capital or assets to really speak of,” Williamson remembers. Undeterred, the partners kept looking until they eventually had a spot of luck. “We found a property in a shopping mall that was under receivership and they figured they could give us a chance,” he says.
Eager to stand out from the crowd, Williamson drew from his experience in acting and saw the business as a production and their employees as its ensemble. “We didn’t hire people with experience but who had character and personality,” he says. “We hired interesting people.” With this cast in place, they trained them to prepare and serve all 23 coffees on the menu. Moreover, they ensured that they always left customers with a great experience. “It was really magical,” he says.
Even though Esquires Coffee offered a unique experience, the results when they first opened were less than encouraging. “We only made $73 on our first day,” says Williamson. “Being a numbers guy I got really stressed out from it.” But rather than calling it quits, the founders and their staff dug down deep and held the course. Eventually it paid off when the local kids and then their parents noticed the coffee shop. “Suddenly we were making money hand over fist,” he says. “We were loving it. The staff felt like family and it was really a special time. The community accepted us because we were employing people and supported local schools and sports teams. We were part of it.” The result was that the coffee shop became the shopping centre's biggest draw, revitalising it.
As the business grew, prospective franchisees began knocking on their door asking to be part of the success. However, the first few people were left disappointed as the duo initially had no plans to franchise the company. “Our plan was to just have five corporate stores,” says Williamson. Fortunately, they soon had a change of heart when Jim Treliving stepped into their shop. While the businessman is today famous for being one of the dragons on the Canadian version of Dragons’ Den, at the time he was most well-known as the owner of Boston Pizza, the restaurant franchise. As it happened, he noticed Esquires Coffee when he was in the mall visiting his own store. “He came in and said: ‘you guys got something really special here and have you ever considered franchising?’” Williamson says. “That convinced us that this might be something to look into.”
Having decided to give franchising a try, the pair enlisted the experienced franchising consultant Peter E. Wudy to help them get the model right. “He took us to a whole new level,” says Williamson. Thanks to his guidance, they quickly set up their model, finalised the operations manual and wrote the franchise agreement. Additionally, Wudy’s expertise proved essential when it came to finding their first franchisee. “He told us we could put an offer on a property subject to finding a franchise,” he says. “So we did and the franchise was literally sold the next day.”
After securing its first franchisee within nine months after opening the initial store, Esquires Coffee subsequently grew to 34 stores across Canada by 1999. However, successful as they were, they didn’t have any plans on expanding internationally. “But as fate would have it a lovely couple – he was Canadian and she was Scottish – visited one of our shops,” Williamson says. “They were absolutely blown away.” Impressed by the experience, they reached out and persuaded Esquires Coffee to give them a chance to prove their chops across the pond. “And that’s how we went international,” says Williamson.
While every international expansion comes attached to a few challenges, going to the UK proved a surprisingly smooth experience. “Fortunately, Canadian law is very much fashioned after British so a lot of the regulations were quite similar,” says Williamson. Being parachuted into the country to help set up the supply chain and assist new franchisees also gave him a chance get to know the country. And he quickly found himself falling in love with Britain. “For a kid growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan, to be standing in front of Big Ben, I couldn’t believe that I was really there,” he says. “I loved it.”
However, setting up the British operations would prove to be one of the last things he would do for Esquires Coffee for more than a decade. “I had philosophical differences with the rest of the leadership about where the business was going,” he says. Having seen how the coffee culture was absolutely exploding in the UK, Williamson argued that the company should double its efforts to expand into the market. The other partners were more cautious. “Eventually I felt I had to move on to the next chapter of my life and left thinking that they’d come begging on their knees to take me back,” he says. “But by then the brand was so strong that it kept going without me.”
Having sold his shares in the company, Williamson was quickly recruited by Canterbury Coffee, the coffee-roasting company. “I consider it a five-year romance with coffee,” he says. Not only did the experience offer him greater insights into the supply chain of coffee and how important sustainability is but it also enabled him to benefit from the mentorship of the company’s leadership. “It helped me mature as a business person instead of being a wild rogue,” he says.
Still, great as the experience was, by 2006 he felt ready for his next adventure. “Having studied marketing at uni it had always been a bit of a bug for me,” he says. While his previous career hadn’t given him many opportunities to scratch this itch, he saw his chance when he hired a+g creative group, the marketing agency, to create some catalogues for Canterbury. Finding himself getting along really well with the team, he asked if they might have an opening and soon joined the firm as a partner. But the timing couldn’t have been worse with the recession stripping the company of half its sales. Moreover, he found himself falling out of love with the industry. “I wasn’t enjoying it and lost my passion,” he says. “I wanted to rock people’s socks off but our clients were never willing to take the risks I wanted them to take.”
Luckily, the chance to leave the sector presented itself when the then-owner of the global rights to Esquires Coffee, Stuart Deeks, contacted him in 2013. “He told me ‘we want you back’,” Williamson says. “He said ‘we’ve been talking with every master franchisee and they all agree that things went downhill after you left. So what will it take?’” When enquiring what Deeks had in mind, he asked if Williamson would spearhead the operations in the UK. Given how the country had charmed him in the 1990s, the decision proved a no-brainer. “I said, ‘yeah, I’d be interested in that,’” he remembers.
Eager to do his due diligence, Williamson ventured across the pond and what he saw shocked him. “Things were essentially where I had left them, the brand hadn’t adapted and the stores were getting older,” he says. But even more alarming was the fact that the franchisees didn’t seem to love what they were doing. “There was no passion but a lot of tired and unhappy franchisees,” he says. “But I thought that while it would be a challenge, the only way from there was up.” Encouraged by the opportunity to make a difference, he signed the dotted line and flew his family over.
Returning to Blighty, his first priority was to reconnect with the network. “Would they give me the chance and were they willing to give it one more push or did they just want to get out?” he says. “I really didn’t need people who would fight me along the way.” While some wanted to call it a day, this proved to be lucky as rents peaked in 2014 and 2015. “Many companies who struggle now are the ones who went through pretty big expansions in those years,” he says. “Luckily, we avoided them.”
Having avoided this increase in rents, Esquires Coffee was primed for expanding the network. And much like when they recruit talent for the shops, he wants to make sure new franchisees have the right attitude. “Will they roll up their sleeves to work and do they understand that it’s not a guaranteed success?” he says. Recognising the importance of this he makes sure to meet all candidates in person. “They can fill out all these applications but until I can look them in the eye when they tell me about their families and their values you really don’t know,” he says.
Once accepted, each budding franchisee goes through an extensive training programme. “We tend to overtrain sometimes,” Williamson laughs. The training kicks off with the franchisee and their key employees visiting the franchise’s roasting partner in Glasgow in order to get a sense of the production. Additionally, each candidate goes through three days of extensive classroom training and assessment to ensure they’re ready for running their own business. This is followed by two weeks of in-store training under the tutelage of a franchise mentor. Moreover, the franchisor helps them recruit and train staff, source materials and set up the store. “And then we have a key operations professional in the store until they feel they’re ready to go it alone,” says Williamson.
Given the dedication the franchisor has put into the franchisees, it’s hardly surprising the UK network has grown steadily in the past few years. “We currently have 30 franchisees and we’ve got another eight franchise owners signed on,” he says. But he’s not stopping there. “At the end of our next fiscal year, March 31, I’d like 50 stores done and signed on and franchisees in various stages of completion,” he says.
However, Blighty isn’t the only place where the network is growing. In fact, the company is on course to reaching its target of 580 stores across the globe by 2020. “I’d like to see a thousand but recognise that it’s a lot of work,” Williamson says. And as the founder, he’s not afraid of chipping in wherever he can. “It’s always nice to meet people and talk about what we can do, the passion and where we’re going,” he says.
Following his return to Esquires Coffee after his marketing misadventure, it feels as if Williamson has landed where he belongs. “I just love what I’m doing and I’d be happy to keep doing this until I retire,” he concludes.