Joe Schwebel: A champion in action

by Laurie Gorton
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Joe Schwebel.
 
If Joe Schwebel had done nothing more than manage the growth of Schwebel Baking Co., Youngstown, OH, from a $2 million business in 1960 to today’s $150 million annual revenues, his career would certainly be described as notable. But he did far more, extending his influence way beyond the family bakery to benefit the entire industry.

For his industry and community leadership, as well as his company’s continuing success, he will be inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Society of Baking (ASB).

Mr. Schwebel believed in action-based solutions. For example, when the low-carb craze nearly broke the back of the commercial baking industry, he helped establish and fund the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF) in 2004. He was a long-time member of the American Bakers Association (ABA), serving on its board of directors and committees. He also sat on the boards of AIB International and Quality Bakers of America. He strongly supported ASB and mentored many on his staff to serve as speakers, two as chairman of the society and as leaders in the industry.

“He was a longtime advocate for the wholesale baking industry,” said Joe’s son Lee Schwebel, vice-president of marketing for the bakery, “a champion of all the industry’s causes, as well as a driving motivational force to make sure goals were attained and missions fulfilled to help wholesale baking grow and prosper.”

Although Joe Schwebel graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with a thesis about problem solving, Lee Schwebel recalled that his father often said, “You don’t learn a bakery business out of a book. It’s what we call a ‘street business.’ All the action, in stores, with customers, in restaurants, that’s where you learn.”

Joe Schwebel was schooled in baking from the day he was born. He combined his education in business management techniques with baking’s daily disciplines by riding bread routes and working directly with customers and shoppers. After college, he started as the company’s restaurant and institutional sales manager. He rose to vice-president of sales in 1981 and became president in 1984, leading the company for more than 25 years until his death in 2012. He turned Schwebel Baking into a regional power and served his community and industry to their betterment.

“Joe Schwebel exemplifies the qualities of a great leader — integrity, honesty, innovation, good sound judgment, great communicator and the ability to inspire others,” said George Deese, Baking Hall of Fame member and non-executive chairman of Flowers Foods, Thomasville, GA.

Joe Schwebel’s influence reached beyond the bakery’s Midwest markets. Patrick Callaghan, Baking Hall of Fame member, retired president of Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, CT, and co-founder of GFF, recalled his leadership style.

“When he weighed in on key strategic and topical issues, it became obvious that when Joe talked, everyone listened,” Mr. Callaghan said. “He often provided insight few others had thought about. He always closed his remarks with action-based solutions that more often than not became the industry-accepted course of action.”

His quiet, unassuming leadership style belied an incredibly sharp business acumen, according to ABA President and CEO Robb MacKie, who first encountered Mr. Schwebel as part of multi-employer labor negotiations. “It was fascinating to watch as the much larger national baking company representatives deferred to his judgment,” Mr. MacKie said. “The trust in his integrity, his principals and his word was never more clearly on display.”

Mr. Schwebel had a deep trust in people, especially the bakery’s staff. John Phillips, 1997 ASB chairman, a former Schwebel Baking plant manager and now Great Lakes regional sales manager for Red Star Yeast, said, “Very few people in Joe’s position could foster a feeling of ownership and entrepreneurship in the people who reported to him or other executive managers.”

“At the time of his death, my father had helped his family’s baking business reach new and unimagined heights, building a legacy of his own, filled with traditions and practices that continue to sustain and enliven Schwebel Baking Co.,” Lee Schwebel said.
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