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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Nov 28, 2017

When it comes to turning great businesses into philanthropic legacies, there are two Ford families of note — the one from Detroit, and the one from Little Rock. It was Joe Ford, and later his son, Scott, who built a little telephone company in Sheridan, Arkansas — population 1,338 in the 1940 Census — into a $30-billion player in wireless — Alltel. After selling Alltel to Verizon, Scott Ford started Westrock Coffee and the Rwanda Trading Company as an exercise in capitalism. By paying Rwandan farmers fair value, creating a two-year training program for those farmers in agribusiness, and launching a new U.S. market for that coffee, Westrock already has put over $100 million into the pockets of Rwandan coffee farmers, and Westrock is just getting up to speed.


Key Takeaways:

[1:21] Scott is of ‘the poor Fords, from Arkansas.’ Scott’s grandfather Ford was a school administrator. Scott’s father, Joe, got advice from Jack Stephens. Hugh Willbourn, Scott’s maternal grandfather, bought a telephone company from the Stephens brothers and it became Alltel. Scott sold it in 2009 as the country’s fifth-largest wireless business.

[3:26] The little telephone company that grew into Alltel started when Witt Stephens contracted with the nearest local telephone business to build a line out to Sheridan, to his mother’s home, so she could have a telephone.

[3:43] If Witt and Jack Stephens hadn’t been willing to extend 100% credit without collateral to contractor Hugh Willbourn to buy their phone company, none of the rest of this story would have happened. Hugh was the contractor who set up the poles.

[4:23] When people ask Scott why he’s involved in Rwandan coffee, he tells them that his father was the one survivor of three children in Depression-era rural Arkansas, and he relates to mothers in Rwanda struggling to provide life’s necessities for their children.

[5:14] Scott saw that two Swiss investors were buying Rwandan coffee at as low a price as they could, maintaining poverty. In a moment of rage, Scott committed to start a coffee business and buy the coffee for as much as he could pay the farmer, and still make a profit. This was before he even knew if coffee grew on a tree or on a plant.

[5:47] This was made possible by the sale of Alltel. Scott had succeeded Joe Ford as CEO in 2002. In 2005, he spun off the wireline business to concentrate on wireless. Scott details the history of the changing business and its success, including focusing on wireless growth. Funding was the challenge that ate most of Scott’s time in that period.

[7:27] Scott recalls doing 100 transactions in that first 11 years, just to reposition the business to being a nationally competitive wireless company.

[7:37] Scott comments on the light-touch approach the FCC had toward wireless at that time. If Alltel had had to work under the approach that later administrations brought to bear on wireless companies, or even at that time on the wired part of the industry, they might never have started their growth plan, which was to supply service to rural areas.

[8:57] If Scott had not built up Alltel into a major wireless provider, he would not have been free later to buy an abandoned coffee mill in Kigali, Rwanda.

[9:12] In 2004 or 2005, while CEO of Alltel, Scott, his wife, and another couple visited an orphanage they had been supporting. The President of Rwanda, looking for wireless networks for his country, invited the Fords and their children to dinner.

[10:10] The Rwandan president and the Fords talked about the three freedoms of Western civilization that allow people to get out of poverty — religious, political, and economic freedoms. The President had aspirations of guiding his people out of poverty and even sharing these advances with other East African nations. He told of his vision.

[11:19] The Rwandan president told Scott if he ever had the chance to help people learn how to make money, that’s what he would ask of Scott. Not charity, but education how to manage capital and make a profit. With that knowledge, the poorest of the poor would taste the benefits of capitalism and they would change that part of the world.

[11:50] Scott kept that vision. Five years later, with capital from the sale of Alltel, Scott went to Rwanda to find someone to teach the principles of capitalism. On that trip, Scott created the coffee business.

[12:13] Westrock has a mission of going beyond Fair Trade. Scott comments on Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. When Westrock Coffee started, they weren’t thinking of those principles. They were trying to get the most money for the farmers, meaning they had to get the most for the coffee in the commercial marketplace. Scott tells how he did that.

[13:46] Westrock Coffee is on every farm with every farmer annually, educating and training in agronomy, bookkeeping, pruning, and fertilization. This has given the Rwandan farmers the fastest growing income stream at a farmgate price, of any agricultural commodity anywhere. Sustainability equals profitability.

[15:11] Without profit in the core trading business, all the benefits wash away. Farmers take the benefit of their profit and invest it in the infrastructure of their community. Scott talks about how running a wireless business applied to helping him run a coffee business.

[17:04] After nine years, Scott looks to double the business again in the next five years. He sees that as getting up to fighting weight.


Mentioned in This Episode:

Joe T. Ford

Scott Ford

Jack Stephens



Westrock Coffee Company

The Rwandan Trading Company