10 Questions: Robin Roth

May 31, 2018

Robin Roth was appointed CEO of Traidcraft plc and Traidcraft Exchange in October 2016. He began his career in furniture manufacturing, spending time in Hungary and France before being beguiled by the possibilities of Fair Trade. He joined Fairtrade International in Bonn in 2005 and from 2008 to 2016 ran Europe’s largest Fair Trade company in Germany

What was your first break in business?

Aged 26, and completely innocent to the ‘wicked ways of the world’, my boss asked me if I wanted to go and run a subsidiary manufacturing plant in Budapest that was losing money. I had no relevant skills, experience or knowledge, but I was the only person in the company who “spoke any foreign”. I said yes on the spot and, starting in 1991, spent four wild years in post-communist Budapest turning the company around.

What did you want to be growing up?

I had no idea then, and I still don’t know now. I was always in awe of people who just knew that they wanted to be lawyers or doctors or England football manager. In retrospect, I suspect that many people who ‘knew’ were driven by the clarity their parents gave them. My parents loved me but they had no expectations for my career.

What attracted you to your current role?

Fair Trade. It’s just such a wonderful idea but it’s a bit like saying, “we’d like you to run a marathon but you have to hop, rather than run”. A simple concept, but it’s fiendishly difficult to do.

What is your organisation’s mission?

To prove that any company can choose to trade fairly if it wishes.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By being completely honest, and by sharing our inspiring vision. I also try to let my colleagues rise to their potential and I love seeing them develop their skills and their confidence.

What has been your career highlight?

So far, I have turned around three companies that were making losses and left all three of them with a healthy balance sheet, which I feel is a good well done. But my real highlights are the countless memories I have of talking to producers whose lives have been fundamentally changed for the better because of the work we do. Each one of those is worth a hundred improved balance sheets. Certainly on my death bed, I know which will be more present in my mind.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Learning Hungarian while running a loss-making company. That was just ridiculous in hindsight, but need is the mother of all invention, and we were certainly creative. I learnt a huge amount about myself, and a few fundamentals about running a business too.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by people who could have given up, who didn’t really need to do what they did, but who are driven by an inner sense of mission. I see that 40 years of neo-liberalism has spawned a business culture of “profits first and damn the rest”. This isn’t admirable. We need real heroes – so here’s a cheer for all of those people who invest in other people, or in causes that have greater social meaning than pure numbers.

What are Traidcraft’s short and long-term goals?

In the short term we want to re-establish Traidcraft as the go-to brand for ethical consumption. We sell some remarkable food and crafts whose origin is inspiring and life-changing. Longer term, we want to be the company that people simply believe in to be fair and just.

How do you achieve a good work/life balance?

Three years ago, I had a most public and incandescent burnout because I got this all wrong. Nowadays, I have an inner switch that just says ‘enough’. I make sure that whenever my wife or my children ask me to do something, I always say yes and put my heart into it. For myself, I play the piano. The metronomic structure helps defuse any building tension – in theory, at least. In practice, I just enjoy it.


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