Autocrat Inc., a fourth-generation, family-owned business that has been making coffee and coffee extracts since 1895, is riding the crest of today’s coffee-chic tidal wave, under the direction of Chairman and President Richard M. Field Jr.
Field and his sister, Cynthia Field Wall, the vice-president of Autocrat, are the only members of the founding Field family now working for the Lincoln-based company, which has 120 employees and annual sales in excess of $30 million. But Richard Field says a concern for family permeates the atmosphere and practices of the operation, which has many employees with a decade or more years of service.
“The attitude is that we are all in this together and we are all in this to make it happen,” Field said of Autocrat’s management.
One inherent danger of family-business ownership is a sense of complacency and entitlement that can cause family owners to lose their competitive edge.
Family members are counseled to separate their ownership from their job in the company “because the skill set you need to direct a business might be different from the skill set of owning a business,” Field said.
It is not difficult or unusual for a family-owned business to maintain its original character and personality over the course of time and changes in the business climate, according to Tom Juenemann, executive director of the Institute for Family-Owned Business at the University of Southern Maine. The founders of these businesses, he said, “tend to be patriarchs who have an idea that worked amazingly well. As the company moves on, it takes the values that the founder had and uses these values as a core set of beliefs for the business.”
Russell Field, 90, Richard Field’s uncle, retired as president of Autocrat in the late 1970s. He said, “The company was able luckily to modify its types of business so that it was always contemporary and viable.”
Autocrat has enjoyed some advantages as specialty coffees and coffee-flavored foods have boomed in popularity over the last decade.
Rhode Island is the home of coffee milk. Autocrat does not claim itself as the inventor of coffee milk, but as the state’s single largest producer of coffee syrup, Autocrat is the brand name associated with coffee milk in Little Rhody. In fact, in 1993, Richard Field successfully persuaded the General Assembly to declare coffee milk the official state beverage.
The company’s experience with coffee extracts left it perfectly poised to ride and promote today’s trend of specialty coffees and the use of coffee flavoring in various foods. “Even McDonalds is marketing its coffee-flavored products,” Field said, sounding a little taken aback.
Field said the company has adjusted several times to accommodate changes in demand and fashion. In the early 1980s, retail sales in grocery stores were flattening, so Autocrat moved into food service, selling to restaurants, hospitals, universities, and the like. When 1990 brought a downturn in the economy, Autocrat plumbed fresh markets by selling coffee directly to offices, then to office-refreshment companies, then to companies selling bottled water.
Since 2000, the emphasis has been on extracting coffee flavor and pushing it for use in milk, ice cream, and other foods. In 2003, Autocrat built a 3.3-acre distribution center in Highland Industrial Park in Woonsocket and the same year it purchased a state-of-the-art extraction system.
One thing he doesn’t expect to change is the Field family’s management priorities.
“The essential point is to have open and frank discussion and to have strong personal relationships,” Field said. •