Tom Davin didn’t exactly need the job when he stepped up to lead Black Rifle Coffee Company alongside CEO Evan Hafer in January 2019. The former Marine reconnaissance officer and Harvard MBA took the position as co-CEO because, after three decades of proven success in executive leadership, he finally found his ideal home at America’s coffee company.
“I feel like I’m finally home,” Davin told Coffee or Die Magazine recently. “All the companies I’ve been with since I left the Marine Corps — I had to disguise military leadership, training, and techniques by repackaging them. People at the other companies didn’t have the military mindset, military experience, and framework. At Black Rifle, it’s part of the culture already, so I don’t have to drag people kicking and screaming.”
Davin is no stranger to success both inside and outside of the military. During the six years he spent on active duty in the Corps, he rose to the rank of captain while collecting elite qualifications from the US Army Ranger school — where he finished as the honor grad — Parachute Jumpmaster, and Special Forces Combat Diver. For more than three decades since leaving active duty in 1985, Davin’s career has been defined by results-driven leadership at some of the fastest-growing companies in America, and every corporate feather he’s collected for his cap along the way has made him exceptionally qualified to lead Black Rifle Coffee through a period of extraordinary growth.
As director of mergers and acquisitions at PepsiCo in the early 1990s, Davin brokered the deal between Pepsi and Starbucks to bring bottled Frappuccino into the retail market. At BRCC, Davin is now leading an effort to cut into Starbucks’ massive market share in the ready-to-drink (RTD) segment of the beverage industry. BRCC launched into the RTD market earlier this year with its camo-patterned cans of espresso mocha and espresso with cream. The drinks are already in about 6,000 stores, and Davin said he expects that number to expand to 10,000 by the end of 2020 as the company’s RTD products hit shelves at convenience stores, Walmarts, Publix markets, and CVS pharmacies.
As CEO of Panda Express, Davin took the company from 650 restaurants in 2004 to 1,300 by 2010, and at 5.11 Tactical, Davin’s vision as CEO took the company to new heights, massively expanding brand awareness and consumer loyalty by launching brick-and-mortar stores built around a unique retail experience.
“Tom’s legacy at 5.11 was taking what was a first-responder uniform, boxy-cut apparel company and turning it into a state-of-the art, high-tech, consumer-facing aspirational lifestyle and brand,” said Jeff Roberts, who served as senior vice president of retail and merchandising at 5.11 from 2013 to 2019. “He allowed me to be an entrepreneur in driving this retail business unit that didn’t previously exist. Together, we conceptualized building out 5.11 retail stores, and today there are more than 90 5.11 retail stores around the globe.”
At BRCC, one of Davin’s missions is to replicate his success in expanding an already successful business model into the retail space. The company recently opened its first brick-and-mortar location in San Antonio, and Davin said two more stores will open in Texas in the coming months, with another six to seven company-owned stores opening in Texas, Tennessee, and Utah next year. The company also has plans to franchise several stores.
“We’re building a pipeline of franchise stores with about a half-dozen franchise groups right now,” Davin said. “We’ll probably open six to 10 franchise stores next year.”
All BRCC retail stores are designed for the COVID-19 era with consumer convenience and safety as top priorities. Davin said every store has to have a drive-thru and the capability for consumers to order ahead and easily pick up orders.
“We’re all about accelerating the trend that was already underway around extreme convenience for customers,” he said. “Drive-thru is always going to be 60% to 65% of the business at any coffee shop. Then you’ve got the order ahead and curbside pickup. Those all have to be in the portfolio.”
Meanwhile, BRCC CEO Evan Hafer has given Davin and the team a “big, hairy audacious goal” of taking the company from its roughly 230,000 Black Rifle Coffee Club subscribers to more than 1 million. The direct-to-consumer experience will continue to drive BRCC’s mission and culture as it expands its offerings online and in new “offline” channels.
“We’ve got the basic coffee club subscription, our Exclusive Coffee Subscription, sticker club, gift subscriptions, ready-to-drink, and we are preparing to launch merchandise in the club format,” Davin said. “A key tactic is to have a world-class subscription experience that is easy, intuitive, fun, and even gamified.
Davin said there are 200 million adult coffee drinkers in the US, and within that group lies an addressable market of about 130 million who share BRCC’s values.
“They’re veterans, active duty military, first responders, and family members or supporters of those communities,” he said.
Since taking the reins as co-CEO, Davin has implemented an aggressive strategy of expanding BRCC’s penetration into its target markets. BRCC products are now prominently displayed at 153 Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, and the company recently launched its Free Range American lifestyle publication and online storefront — an expansion of the popular Free Range American Podcast.
“We’re going after the same people, but we’re going after them differently,” Davin said. “We’re going after the hunters, anglers, and lovers of the great outdoors. It’s another way to bring people into the funnel. When somebody walks through a Bass Pro store, they’re walking by a big, beautiful display of Black Rifle Coffee, T-shirts, and drinkware. Each of those stores has up to 2 million visitors per year, so that’s massive brand awareness we’re building.”
What ultimately defines BRCC, Davin said, are its mission and the culture the company’s leaders have cultivated since launching in 2014.
“Once you have a mission, then the key is to build and reinforce culture,” Davin said. “You build culture by having people not only understand the mission but have everybody feel like, ‘Hey, I’m here not just as an employee but as a leader who’s truly invested in the mission’s success.’ Most businesses don’t challenge people to be leaders, and I think we do that well because of our company’s military heritage.”
Davin said it’s exciting to work in an organization where he can fully leverage his military background for the benefit of the mission. He said the company’s senior leaders often use the military’s standard five-paragraph operations order format to communicate and execute plans.
“The Marine Corps shaped who I am, for better or for worse,” Davin said. “So I’ve got that ‘accomplish the mission at all costs — never quit’ mindset. My mindset is, there’s no limit to what you can do if you’re not concerned about who gets the credit. I’d just as soon give other people credit because it’s fuel for them. It’s a great way to build culture.”
Davin isn’t concerned with personal glory or accolades, but he remains laser focused on mission accomplishment. He said leading by example is a key to the company’s success.
“I think that’s a big part of why we’re effective and able to grow so quickly,” he said. “Our executive leaders don’t delegate all the work; we do real work, which I think we all learned in the military. We don’t just stand around giving orders. We lead by example. We lead by doing.”
Davin said a key component of leading by example is embodying the “whole person concept” as a leader. For him, that means getting up at 5:30 a.m., having a cup of Black Rifle Coffee with some MCT oil, and then knocking out a high-intensity workout for an hour to 90 minutes before starting work. He’s also an avid competitive tennis player.
“I love the combative aspect of tennis where I’m hitting the ball as hard as I can. If somebody is coming to the net, I’m trying to drill them right in the chest. That feeling you get of just blasting a tennis ball by somebody or nailing it at their feet — it’s not quite the same as a big hit in football or lacrosse, but it’s close to it,” said Davin, who played lacrosse for Duke University as an undergrad.
Davin said after he caps off his morning workouts with a second cup of coffee, he’s “ready to take on the world.”
“What I love about Black Rifle is it’s an opportunity to be creative in a competitive business environment and do things people haven’t done before,” he said. “The more people tell us, ‘Wait, your brand’s a little too aggressive,’ — the more people question us — that’s just more fuel for the fire. That totally gets me out of bed. Working with a team to get to a million subscribers or $100 million in RTD business? Damn, that’s exciting.”
Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.