Recognising Potential in a Crisis – The CEO’s Moment with Ewan Reid

Ewan Reid

2020 has been a period of unprecedented change in all aspects of our lives, from how we interact with friends and family, to how we do business.  At Livingston James, we understand that great leaders must be adaptable, ready to respond positively to this period of disruption. 

Our ‘Recognising Potential in a Crisis’ series connects with Scottish business leaders across sectors to find out how they are using this period of evolution to reimagine their own potential, and that of their organisation to have the greatest impact.

The next leader to feature in our series is Ewan Reid, Managing Director of Matthew Algie, Glasgow based coffee roasters and wholesalers.


What beliefs or long-held assumptions have you needed to reset in your organisation to ensure your business is moving forward?

For us it has been less about resetting and more about reaffirming. Sure, there have been learnings in respect of fast-tracking digital transformation and looking at new markets. However, the crisis has brought to life the importance of long-standing business relationships to support each other and find new opportunities. As a supplier to the hospitality sector we are in this together with our customers and we all have a key role to help recover and reshape the market.


During the pandemic, many organisations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. What have you learnt about yourself through this crisis?

It was on plan for this year to rebrand and refocus the business in 2020; lockdown accelerated this and in many ways the market circumstances highlighted exactly where that focus should be. Working remotely, we turned around a new brand identity, refreshed packaging, launched a completely new website and an exciting new approach on coffee e-learning/training for our customers; all aligned to a refreshed channel strategy. I am in no doubt that the circumstances of lockdown helped us deliver a better outcome, quicker and more cost effectively than in ‘normal’ times – I am truly proud of what the team at Matthew Algie delivered.

Looking back, the key learning for me in this was to have faith in the process and the team. When it comes to brand matters, like many I find it difficult not to personalise and to look objectively at the direction and outcomes. More fundamentally though this was about learning to have belief in others and to be more hands-off than I would have been historically.


In your opinion, what learnings will you bring forward into the organisation for the future?

Just before lockdown I embarked on a business coaching programme.  This has been incredibly useful as a support mechanism to bounce off ideas and to help me find solutions during the most trying of times. Importantly it has allowed me to reflect on how I can enable improvement in the way we work. For instance, with lockdown necessitating smaller teams and with greater agility, creating an environment of empowerment has never been more important to drive the business forward. Although we already had a significant proportion of our team working in the field for our customers, like nearly every organisation we have also learnt to trust our employees more when it comes to remote working.


How has your leadership style evolved over the course of the pandemic?

Early in the pandemic I spoke with a friend and fellow CEO on the need to keep positive in an uncertain world and whilst we were both wary of blind positivity, he suggested a pragmatic approach from author James C Collins. The business author interviewed former Vice Admiral and prisoner of war James Stockdale where he reflected on coping with in a crisis “…you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”. Collins went on to articulate this as the Stockdale Paradox and I’ve reflected on this regularly in recent months both within the business and in my own mind; it’s important to have a positive vision for the future while acknowledging and confronting the obstacles that we’ll meet on the way.


What personal qualities have you found most effective when leading your senior team and wider business through such uncertainty, and why do you think those qualities have shown over others?

I would like to think that I have always been relatively calm in a crisis and I will take time to consider potential outcomes. And whilst being reflective can occasionally be a hindrance, as we continue to navigate through the pandemic, keeping the long view is important in order to have a balanced positive vision for the business. Ultimately, Matthew Algie has always been about doing the right thing and I am great believer that both integrity and keeping to our values will ensure we prevail as a sustainable business in the long-term.


What makes for valuable peer interaction, and how can you ensure that these conditions are in place when you interact with other CEOs?

Openness, curiosity and an ability to listen empathetically whilst being willing to challenge are key. COVID in some ways has been the great leveller. I have had some very open discussions with customers and suppliers recognising that we are all in the same boat. We should continue to reflect on what this openness and shared mission has allowed us to achieve during these times for the future.

Beyond this peer group however, I have always placed an emphasis on learning from other organisations; there is a real danger of developing a somewhat myopic view of the world without this. Whether with suppliers, customers, third sector, or other stakeholders it is important to remember that someone out there is probably doing it better or differently, you can always learn from that. I have also had the privilege of working with farmers in coffee growing regions for more than two decades now and these community organisations are a never-ending source of innovation and inspiration for me.


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