Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Winter 2005Kellogg School of Management
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  Claudia Meirelles Davis '01 (EMBA)
  Claudia Meirelles Davis '00 (EMBA)

Alumni Profile: Claudia Meirelles Davis '00 (EMBA)

Tropical buzz
Leaving corporate America to lead a Brazilian organic coffee farm, Claudia Meirelles Davis finds sustainable business uplifting

By Carl Vogel

In 2004, after living in the United States for nearly a decade, Claudia Meirelles Davis '00 returned to a Brazilian coffee plantation similar to the one where she spent the first five years of her life.

She hadn't planned on returning to her native country — much less to the world of coffee growing — but her willingness to remain open to interesting opportunities has served her well throughout her career. Now, she and her husband are using their business acumen to try to make a profit producing organic coffee.

 "The most difficult thing in converting a conventional farm to an organic operation is the conversion period, how to be a model farm but also be financially sound," Meirelles Davis says. "We have to make a profit, reduce costs, manage employees — so it's great to have been at Kellogg and have business experience."

While attending Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a prestigious business school in São Paulo, Meirelles Davis began working for a small firm specializing in international trading and procurement. She remained in the field after graduating in 1988, working for several companies before taking a position with MCS USA, a midsized Brazilian firm, in 1995. That job took her to the United States, where a lengthy trip to visit an important client became an opportunity to work in the Chicago office, where she stayed for eight years.

At MCS, Meirelles Davis began the executive program at Kellogg in 1998, graduating three years later. "I had become curious about working with a bigger American company, so I took a job with Transora, [a business exchange founded and used by companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Unilever]," she says. It was at Transora that she met Nelson Davis. The two married in 2003.

While on vacation in Belize with Nelson, Meirelles Davis took her next career step. The couple decided that, rather than work for 50 weeks a year to spend two in such an atmosphere, they would leave their Chicago jobs and move to the tropics. A few weeks after chatting happily about the plan at a dinner with Marcos Croce, her former boss from MCS, and his wife Silvia Barretto, Meirelles Davis was presented a new opportunity: Barretto had recently inherited a coffee plantation in Brazil and had begun converting it to organic production. Would Meirelles Davis be interested in becoming the on-site manager?

And so Claudia and Nelson found themselves in charge of Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF), a 1,000-hectare farm that produces coffee, honey, yogurt, beef and cheeses — all organically. "When we first got here [in April 2004], there was a field manager who had been running things for 20 years, so we didn't have to worry much about the daily activity. But by September, he had some problems and has been on medical leave, so we also have taken over the operations," Meirelles Davis says. "It's like being the mayor of a little town. We deal with electricity, roads, houses, sewage; we deal with all the external contacts, develop new customers."

FAF has a commitment to organic production, despite the higher costs. It takes two men to spray herbicide on a field, but six are required to weed manually. The farm is now experimenting with "natural" production: not only are no chemicals used, but the coffee plants are allowed to grow all season without human interaction. It's a strategy that allows a mix of trees on the same land, leading to a more sustainable habitat.

To cover its higher costs, FAF charges more for its coffee, depending on the tastes of a discriminating consumer. The plantation exports about 70 percent of its coffee to Japan, while about 20 percent is sold locally. The rest goes to small roasters in the U.S. and, starting this fall, in some retail establishments under a new brand, Café Natureza.

Meirelles Davis cheerfully acknowledges that, with a workday that starts before 6:30 a.m. and runs well past when the workers go home at night, she and Nelson work harder than they ever did in corporate America.

"Sometimes we look at each other and say, 'How different this is from Chicago.' But we can say we're 100 percent happy. We love our new lifestyle."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University