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Red Diamond--a southern Tea & Coffee gem.

I drove down Vanderbilt Road, in the warehouse district of Birmingham, Alabama, looking for number 1701, the address for Red Diamond, Inc. It's no surprise to readers, I'm sure, that trying to find distinctive address numbers on warehouse buildings, while hitting potholes and dodging transport trucks, is not so easy. Usually, when I'm looking for a coffee roaster, I can smell it blocks away. So my windows were rolled down, as I hoped my nose would give me directions if the numbers didn't.

Well, I finally found it! If it hadn't been for one of Red Diamond's new foodservice trucks pulling into the driveway ahead of me, I might have still been in Birmingham. Once I passed the security officer just beyond the gate, I pulled in front of the main office relieved that the entrance was in front and that I was parked in the right spot.

Admittedly, I didn't know much about Red Diamond even though it's only a 2-hour drive from Atlanta and has been roasting coffee since 1906. I knew it was a family-owned, privately held company, but it was then that I discovered it is truly a "Diamond (red) in the rough."

I have always wondered how the name "Red Diamond"--one of the rarest and highest quality jewels in the world--was selected as the name of a coffee and tea operation. I didn't have to look far, since Red Diamond's family history is right on the brochure. Going back four generations to its beginning, one of the original owners, William Fitz Donovan named the company because a red diamond does denote quality and perfection.

The front door opens to a gem of a first class operation. I'll explain that statement throughout the article, but from the moment I was greeted by Joann Musso, who instructed me explicitly on the correct pronunciation of Bowron (like taking a bow; not tying a bow), southern hospitality in its most professional atmosphere was apparent. I walked down the hall, peeking into offices and watching two employees taste test a new tea concentrate, since William Bowron, Jr., president of Red Diamond whom I was meeting was on the phone. All the men employees were dressed in navy or gray suits, long sleeve blue or white shirts, and wearing ties. The women were wearing skirt or pants suits, all conservatively dressed.

Bill Bowron, Jr., was off the phone by the time I walked back to the reception area. He was heading my way, greeting me from a "hollerin' distance" with a cheery, "Did you get here alright?"

When he led me into his office, I wasn't surprised to see all the mahogany, paneled walls, leather furnishings, family photos and filled bookcases that help distinguish a president's office. In fact, it reminded me his former employer's trust department, SunTrust Bank, where I first worked after college.

Remarking that the Red Diamond offices were larger than I expected, Bowron said as he chuckled, "We've wanted to stay under the radar, until now. We wanted all divisions fully functional before telling our story," he said. And, he's right. I soon discovered that light chuckling is part of Bowron's personality. However, I wouldn't want to be around when the chuckling stopped. Bill Bowron, Jr. is a serious, confident and capable businessman with a vision for Red Diamond.

Southern charm is a stereotypical trait of its natives, but when engaged in business, they don't lack a Yankee's abruptness. Southerners and Yankees alike can spout out "You're fired," just as easy as The Donald (Trump). Employees of Red Diamond know and respect the leadership of Bowron, Jr. In fact, most of the employees have worked for the company for over 25 years.

Classic southern tradition wafts throughout the sparkling clean building, from the administrative offices to the plants and out the doors to the adjacent warehouses that house the cavernous foodservice division. "We've outgrown our space," said Bowron. "The coffee and tea plant is 120,000 sq. ft. and we're oozing out the doors. We're in the process right now of expanding the roof in order to increase space. It's not just building onto our existing space," he explained, "but making certain that our climate controlled systems continue to provide the same consistent temperatures and are able to filter out the dust."

Quality control systems are evident throughout the plant and warehouses. Joe George, vice president of operations, manages over 25 employees in the production department. Every product is bar coded and scanned, and the plant is certified and inspected as a HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) facility.

Each of the five divisions is a separate operating unit. The retail division, which was the original company, operates in 33 states and targets the grocery and merchandise stores. The largest division is foodservice, complete with a fleet of Red Diamond delivery trucks and a warehouse filled with name brands familiar to every household.

Red Diamond is one of the members of Unipro, a large foodservice distributor/coop that gives them national distribution, both in branded and private label products. As Bowron says, "We provide foodservice operators, from hospitals to large restaurants, with just about everything they need. If the operators aren't using Red Diamond products for coffee and tea, we have the opportunity to sell them on 'one stop' shopping."

Within the foodservice division, Red Diamond's coffee service section targets universities, offices, restaurants and hospitals. "We provide the whole beverage spectrum plus food to these venues," said Bowron, as he pointed to the Coca-Cola fountain units Red Diamond distributes to customers. Along with the fountain units, Red Diamond sells its own branded water, rounding out the beverage spectrum.

Private Label foodservice is another division. Red Diamond manufactures the "Reflections" brand of coffee for Unipro. The company also produces for private label retail division, as well as coffees and teas for major supermarket chains such as Piggly-Wiggly.

Had the industry been fully aware of its operations, the five channels served by Red Diamond could have easily been minimized by the competing companies' shadows. Today, Red Diamond positions itself as the Winsome Roadrunner, leading the way for the Wile E. Coyote Competition.

Bowron, who has a bachelors of science from the University of Virginia and a graduate banking degree from Rutgers University, in New Jersey, did not start his career in the family business, but in the banking industry. Moving around the southeast, he worked his way up the corporate ladder with SunTrust Bank until his family called him home to Birmingham to run Red Diamond.

Although the senior William A. Bowron is still chairman of the board and chief executive officer, it's Bill, Jr. who is president and oversees the day-to-day operations. Since 1991, the younger Bowron has been president, and with his banking background and vision, he has successfully revised, innovated and built the five profitable divisions.

In the midst of fast-growing competition, Bowron continues to see the value in purchasing the machinery that makes Red Diamond run more efficiently. Within the past year, Red Diamond became the first company in the nation to put into full service Fresco's high speed fractional packaging machine. Fully automatic, the machine makes 280 pieces per minute. Also, it makes the box and fills it with the form-fill machine.

According to Chris Burger, coffee product manager of Fres-co, one of the challenges in packaging is the oxygen factor. "This high speed machine," said Burger, "keeps the oxygen level below 2%, as well as the gas flush level. There is less air in the boxes, therefore decreasing the weight, which is the secondary cost in packaging. Consequently, shipping costs are less."

As roasters try to purchase machinery that will streamline costs, and simultaneously provide efficiency, Burger added that the fractional packages have some flexibility, making from 1 to 2 ounce packages. Packaging is four sided with a seal pouch, versus the traditional pillow back. Ultimately, this packaging uses less film than the traditional pillow pack machine.

Bowron, Jr. also knows as much about tea as he does of coffee. He was chairman of the U.S. Tea Association during 2000 and 2001. During his tenure, the Specialty Tea Institute (STI) was founded.

On the tea side, Red Diamond's RTD refrigerated iced tea brand is the third largest in the U.S. Turkey Hill is first, followed by private label brands. Nestea ranks number four in the category, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI). Utilizing 12 dairies across the country to manufacture the RTD product, tea is delivered in several sizes and formulations: one gallon, one pint and half a gallon. Flavors are sweetened, unsweetened, and decaffeinated, and some are sweetened with Splenda. This summer, Red Diamond is introducing new flavors in Texas, including raspberry, peach, ginger, lemon and green jasmine. Teas, which are processed aseptically and packaged in PET bottles, have a 35 day shelf life.

In an effort to improve efficiency in the tea division, Red Diamond will install a new teabag-packing machine from IMA in August.

Among projects within each division, both the tea and coffee divisions have produced a whole line of Silver Service specialty teas and coffees, which are being marketed through the foodservice division, including office coffee service. Both teas and coffees are packaged and foil wrapped so that end customers may pick and use individual selections.

Launching this summer, the company will introduce a branded line of specialty coffees called Red Diamond Specialty Coffees, targeting supermarket channels. Coffees will sell for $6.50 per pound and include a House Blend, European Roast, Breakfast Blend, Decaffeinated Blend, dark roast 100% Colombian, 100% Costa Rica and a SHB from Guatemala.

Bowron, Jr. anticipates the company will have complete national distribution under the Red Diamond brand within the next 2 to 3 years. When asked about Red Diamond's secret to success, Bowron, Jr., replied, "To maintain our focus: value oriented, high quality, and service oriented." As for the future, Red Diamond's appears to be sparkling.

Red Diamond, Inc. 1701 Vanderbilt Road, Birmingham, AL 35234. Tel: (1)(205) 254-3138, Fax:(1)(205) 254-6062, Web:

A native Southerner, Suzanne Brown is principal of Brown Marketing Communications LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. She can be reached at
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Author:Brown, Suzanne J.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 20, 2005
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