Marines and mentors

by Lucy Sutton
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Always faithful. That’s the core ideal that has led Michael Elenz through his career to his current position as vice-president of manufacturing, Schwebel Baking Co., Youngstown, OH.

Having grown up in Youngstown, Mr. Elenz spent two years in the Marine Corps and received what he called “a tropical vacation in Vietnam paid for by the government” from 1968 to 1969. He started as a Military Police Officer, transferred in to the infantry and ended up as a decorated E-4 Corporal with two purple hearts. “I just did what any Marine would do,” he said.

Indeed, Mr. Elenz’s military background has informed his philosophies and approach throughout his career, one which earned him the title of 2012 Operations Executive of the Year.

From humble beginnings

Like so many in this industry, Mr. Elenz began working at a bakery as a temporary job to send himself through college after leaving the Corps. Although his degree in mechanical engineering and business at Youngstown State University went unfinished, his baking career was just taking hold.

After starting his career by unloading 100-lb bags of flour from railroad cars at Continental Baking’s Wonder Bread plant in Youngstown in 1969, Mr. Elenz learned the trade from the ground up, including working as a sanitation and shipping assistant while attending night classes. With encouragement from Jim Bassler, production superintendent, Mr. Elenz moved into production, which took him to the Wonder Bread plant in Detroit, MI, in 1976.

“I will say that was probably the roughest facility and my greatest learning experience,” Mr. Elenz said. “The plant was running very poorly at that time, and we were able to turn it around. At the same time, I met my mentor.”

That mentor, Tom Parks, production superintendent, worked with Mr. Elenz while in Detroit. After the Detroit bakery closed in 1985, Mike worked as plant superintendent in various Wonder Bread plants.

“He taught me a lot on management and baking,” Mr. Elenz said of Mr. Parks. “He was an old-school baker.”

Among the lessons gleaned from Mr. Parks was what Mr. Elenz refers to as his “aha moment” in bakery management.

“I was from the school that says you work real hard, but I also thought you had to do everything,” he said. “I would work extremely long hours and thought I had to be involved in everything hands-on.”

One day as the plant was busy relocating some equipment, Mr. Parks asked Mr. Elenz for something trivial. Throughout the day, as Mr. Elenz was running around the plant, Mr. Parks reminded him about the item.

“Finally, I was in the middle of something,” he recalled. “Tom came up to me, and he said, ‘Did you get it, Mike?’ And I said, ‘Tom, I don’t have time. I can’t do everything.’ He said, ‘That’s right.’ ”

In 1993, Mr. Elenz changed gears, leaving Wonder Bread for CooperSmith, a baking company in Mobile, AL, where he was the director of operations.

Two years later, he received a call from a recruiter. “They were very vague,” he said. “They said they had a bakery in northeastern Ohio, family owned. I said, ‘Well, I’m from Ohio; I grew up there. There’s only one that I know of.’ ”

Only half-looking, Mr. Elenz went back to his hometown for an interview at Schwebel Baking Co. and was quickly hired under Tom Shannon, then vice-president, manufacturing, to oversee production, sanitation, shipping, R&D and product development. After becoming plant manager of the Youngstown facility in 1996, Mr. Elenz was primed to take over Mr. Shannon’s position when he retired in 2001.

A little elbow grease

One constant in Mr. Elenz’s career has been a strong work ethic — although he learned to delegate. “I was raised if you do the job, do it right the first time,” he said. “I still believe working hard will allow you to do anything.”

Mr. Elenz also strongly believes in treating people the way you would like to be treated yourself. He aims to be firm, consistent and fair. On a bookshelf in his office, he proudly displays a plaque stating a maxim he adopted from Mr. Parks: “Standards set; standards met.”

The entire management team at Schwebel Baking has an open-door policy, preferring to work out issues when they’re small rather than let them build up.

“I hate surprises,” Mr. Elenz said. “If there’s an issue, you let me know, and we’ll take care of it right then. We have an opportunity; if something wasn’t quite right, you learn from it. If you keep making the same mistake, then we have a different issue.”

A key management philosophy that harks back to Mr. Elenz’s Marine Corps days is the chain of command. “If somebody has an issue, they should see their immediate supervisor,” he said. “People really only want one boss. They don’t need to have 10 people telling them what to do.”

Another legacy from his Marine service is a desire for mutual respect. “I think you can move up the ranks and technically have the power, but you need the respect with it,” Mr. Elenz said. “I don’t expect everybody to love me, but I try to earn their respect.”

A willing team

The respect Schwebel Baking employees have for Mr. Elenz was clear during a quick walk through of the plant when Baking & Snack visited the Youngstown facility (for more on the plant, see Page 30). Greeting his workers by name, Mr. Elenz received smiles and pats on the back in return.

“Everybody here takes pride in what they do,” he said. “They want to do a good job. More of their life is spent at the bakery than it is at home, so they have good friendships.” He pointed out that people who stick with the company for the first year usually end up staying until they’re ready to retire. One such employee has a teaching degree but prefers the camaraderie of the plant and has been with Schwebel Baking for more than 20 years.

Schwebel Baking rewards such long-tenured employees for their loyalty and safety records with the more desirable day shifts. The company committees, including the safety committee, are mostly composed of people on the floor to encourage the ability to speak freely.

In particular, Mr. Elenz relies on his four plant managers to make his life easier: John Phillips, Youngstown; Pat Lobb, Cuyahoga, OH; Joe Rebholz, Hebron, OH; and Ryan Wall, Solon, OH.

“Every one of their personalities is different,” Mr. Elenz said. “When I hire someone, I do not want another Mike Elenz. Everybody has their own personality, and as a good manager, you need to know those personalities.”

Each shares a desire to do a good job and make each loaf of bread better than the last, Mr. Elenz said. “Our whole team is our QA,” he said. “When we do projects, we get everybody’s input.”

Employees are given the chance to evaluate the products made on their shifts, underscoring the pride they take in their work. “They’re harder on themselves,” he said. “Some people might think, ‘They made that product. They’re biased.’ No. They’ll deduct more points on something than anybody else would.”

But it’s not just internal scores giving each shift bragging rights. In the seven years Schwebel has been a member of The Long Co. baking cooperative, the Youngstown facility has won the Best Bun trophy six times. This past year, every one of the company’s bakeries was in the Top 6. Mr. Elenz celebrates his plants’ wins with a presentation ceremony and a cookout or pizza party for the whole facility.

“People in general love to be thanked,” he said. “Just, ‘You did a good job.’ ” The company also has a competition among plants and shifts for waste, efficiency and safety, as well as a 110% award given every year to individuals and teams who exceed expectations. Results are announced in the company newsletter, and the company averages 300 to 400 awards per year.

Part of the family

Such recognition affords a strong sense of community. One of the few baking companies to continue management into the fourth generation of the founding family, Schwebel Baking Co. considers its employees part of its extended family. “It’s not a line; we actually do,” Mr. Elenz said. “My last name’s not Schwebel, I’m not a blood relative, but I take Schwebel’s as part of my life. Actually, I enjoy it more than the large corporations. It’s more personable.”

As an example, Mr. Elenz pointed out that Paul Schwebel, president, sits in the lunch room to eat with the employees. “If you didn’t know who Paul was and came in around lunch time, you would never pick him out as one of the owners,” Mr. Elenz said. “There’s not that air about him, or about any of us. We all have a common goal. We want to make the best product possible in the most efficient manner.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the entire baking industry, which is part of what has drawn him deeper into baking. “What other industry would people want to work the schedules and the hours that we do in a bakery?” he said. “But people do. We pay them well. It’s a great industry.”

When asked what one thing he would change about the baking industry if he could, Mr. Elenz immediately brought up the consolidation, both in bakeries and in industry suppliers. “When these large corporations take over, some of the art is being lost,” he said. “Some companies just get so large, they start to lose touch with their people on the line.”

It’s not all bad news, though. Through the uncertainty in commodity prices, regulations and the environment in general, Mr. Elenz said he is still excited to be baking bread every day. And he wants to make sure future generations get to do the same.

“You want to leave your industry hopefully a little better than when you came in, make sure it’s going to live on,” he said. “We have a say in every one of our employees’ lives. We want to make sure that we’re around for another 100 years to make sure they have good jobs.”

As long as the Schwebel family — and baking industry — keeps attracting to its business individuals with the drive and leadership of Mr. Elenz, that’s not so hard to imagine.                          

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