Coffee entrepreneur begins new grind

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  • | 12:00 p.m. February 12, 2008
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by David Ball

Staff Writer

Much like a morning latte, Susan Hartley’s recent career decision was bitter sweet.

After more than 20 years building one of the most successful coffee and vending businesses in North Florida, Hartley recently sold her company, H&R Coffee Co., to her business partners in order to focus on her family, an equestrian gift shop and the show-jumping career of her daughter.

“Well, I had an offer I couldn’t refuse,” said Hartley, who didn’t mention the sale price. “But not only that, it was just time to move on and time for new leadership to take this company to the next level.”

Former vice presidents Beverly Cleary and Christian Hosking are now co-owners of Jacksonville-based H&R Coffee and its brand-named services Coffee Perks and Sunbelt Springs Bottle Water. The company provides coffee, water, snack and vending services to more than 1,500 clients including corporations and company offices, golf courses, hotels and restaurants across Northeast Florida and Biloxi, Miss.

“We’re definitely looking to take the company to a higher level as far as our service goes, although the service is good now,” said Cleary. “We are looking at going into home delivery of bottled water and coffee. We’re going through the strategic planning right now.”

Cleary has 30 years in the vending business and merged her company with Hartley’s four years ago. She is also Hartley’s sister.

“Obviously, we have her (Hartley’s) phone numbers,” she added. “If we do have questions or if we’re looking for feedback, we’ll definitely take advantage of her years of experience.”

Hartley is one of the most experienced in the industry. A Jacksonville native, she began her career working in her family’s office coffee vending business, Betty’s Coffee Service, which her parents started in the 1970s to put Hartley through college.

After school, Hartley joined the business and stayed on after it was sold in 1988. She worked her way up the corporate ladder from route driver to sales representative to vice president and then finally president. With the help of a Small Business Administration loan in 1993, she acquired H&R Coffee and in 1999 bought the rest of the business, SunBelt Coffee & Water Service, from then-owner Robert Jackson.

In 2004, Hartley merged with Cleary’s company, Beverly’s Coffee, and then launched the national office coffee franchise concept Coffee Perks.

Hartley brought in about $300,000 in revenue in 1993 and she had expected to clear $5 million in 2007.

That same year, Hartley was named Operator of the Year by the National Automatic Merchandising Association. She became the first woman to ever receive this top honor in the multi-billion-dollar coffee, snack and vending industry.

Hartley said because of her success and how she’s built the company, the idea to sell was only considered under the right circumstances.

“I’m approached probably monthly by competitors looking to move into the market and purchase the company,” she said. “But we (Hartley and her partners) talked about it for probably a couple of years. I knew they strongly had an interest, and when I was ready to pass the torch they were ready to take over leadership.”

Hartley added that her customers should not expect any change in service. If anything, she said, Cleary and Hosking should continue to expand services and offer customers more choices.

“I’m very comfortable with the succession,” said Hartley, a former member of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. “It’s very encouraging that my existing partners, employees and customers, that we can continue with the same values and principles I built at Coffee Perks.”

The new owners said they will continue advancing in the realm of new break room concepts, which Hartley had championed as the future of the vending industry.

She said she saw the company break room as a comfortable, trendy lounge with sofas, flat-screen TVs and even some exercise bikes. Vending machines will work on credit and debit cards and offer a computerized concierge service where employees can order dry cleaning and take care of other errands without leaving the office.

“We are definitely staying with the trend of break rooms of the future,” said Hosking. “We’re seeing how we can be involved when people are building out their location to plan for the break rooms and to help customers develop green programs.”

Hartley said she will continue to push for vending advancements while consulting with the National Automatic Merchandising Association. However, much of her attention will now be focused on horses.

She said she’ll continue to operate her equestrian store, The Gift Horse, in Mandarin that she’s owned since October. But most of her days will be spent at her family’s horse farm in St. Augustine, watching daughter Jaimee prepare for competitions and doing a little jumping herself.

“It is nice. It’s also exciting to know I’m entering into a new passage of my life, and I’m interested to see where that takes me,” she said. “I guess I’m just a regular Joe now. Well, a regular cup of joe.”