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Media captionCoaltown Coffee boss: ‘I failed my business exam’
Scott James had failed all his exams – and decided the future was in his own hands.
Aged 19, he set up his own coffee roasters in his hometown Ammanford, Carmarthenshire.
Six years later he is still living in the former mining community – where weekly pay is below the Welsh average – but runs a profitable coffee roastery. He supplies 270 companies including Selfridges, employing 30 people and attracting customers from miles around to their cafe.
The roots of the Coaltown Roastery have been built in to its brand, which plays on the “black gold” epithet given to both coal and coffee.
He was 10 when the last colliery closed in the Amman Valley. Now there are only smaller employers in the west Wales town.
“The whole town’s industry disappeared, so I’m from that generation that was brought up in Ammanford as a post-industrial town,” he said.
“It was always like a forgotten town. I always wanted to see it back on its feet, get it up and running and get something really exciting happening from this town.”
Ammanford is a former mining community in mainly rural Carmarthenshire
His parents set up a cafe when he was very young, so business was part of family life and he always had an ambition to run his own company. He hit on the idea of setting up his own coffee brand.
“I was never scared. It’s kind of the adrenalin buzz, you’re doing something for yourself, and you’re in control of your own destiny. You can be the person you want to be, not being limited by qualifications, and not being limited by what somebody else thinks of you makes you so much more independent.”
There have been hurdles along the way, one of which was persuading a bank to give him an account when he was a teenager trading with south American suppliers.
The last day for Betws colliery near Ammanford in 2003, after nearly 30 years – brought to an end mining in the area going back a century
He and his then-small team were originally working from his parents’ garage, but having built up their UK-wide customer base they needed to move out.
They opened the roastery in 2018 and a cafe for the public in the November, becoming a well-known destination in Carmarthenshire and since welcoming 40,000 visitors.
“Because of the internet…we can sell from anywhere, we can do something special from anywhere.”
Coaltown has made a feature of the town’s industrial roots in its branding
It is this sentiment that a local project hopes will inspire others in the principally rural area.
Scott is taking part in a £100,000 project which has been launched to encourage young people to set up their own businesses.
Paid for by Welsh Government funds for job creation after Brexit, the Springboard Rural Enterprise Roadshow is run by Coleg Sir Gar. The college will help people draw up a business plan and fill in skills gaps.
It has signed up several founders of local businesses as role models, including Jessica Seaton who has recently sold her Toast clothing company.
Jessica Seaton believes more should be done to stop Wales losing young people
She and her husband Jamie set up a mail-order business, making pyjamas, from their Carmarthenshire farmhouse in 1997.
It took off and at its peak, Toast had 13 shops, a call centre and 250 workers.
But Jessica was struggling to fill jobs in her design and production team.
“We had to move more than half of our business to London in 2014 and that was a crying shame,” she said.
“We would advertise a role here in Wales and we’d get one applicant and that says something about how everything became centralised in London after 2000.
“No-one wanted to move away from London property prices and buy in Wales for fear of getting off that ladder so we had to move the business to where the talent was.”
Because it was a retail business, Toast could not get investment from government agencies and so instead turned to high street brand French Connection.
Jessica believes Wales needs to do something to stop losing young people.
“It would help if the government had a more flexible attitude and was able to identify quality in a business and not fit people into pigeon holes,” she said.
Scott was determined it was possible to build a sustainable brand from his hometown and from such a small, unknown place helped get them noticed when they pitched to big customers like retailer Selfridges.
“The Selfridges buyer was really excited about what we were doing, that fact we were doing something from a town that you’d least expect,” he added.
“It wasn’t in London, it wasn’t in Bristol, it was in a part of Wales not many people had heard of before.
“It was the excitement of getting it known for something positive rather than negative.”