Otis Spunkmeyer (Al Sautner): No Time for Excuses

by Jennifer Fox
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Can the secret to success be as easy as skipping unscheduled coffee and smoke breaks? To most, machine or line breakdowns mean a free 5 or 10 minutes, but over the course of months and later years, those accumulated minutes have served Al Sautner, plant manager of the Otis Spunkmeyer facility in Cayce, SC, well. Unexpected downtime became an opportunity for observation, learning and problem solving.

The time-rich management lessons began in 1977 with a part-time job at Richmond Bakery/Cryotherm Foods, a producer of rye bread, hard rolls and frozen dough in Philadelphia, PA, where his father worked. Deciding that baking was more play than work, Mr. Sautner advanced to full-time employment by his third week and began searching for a role model. He found that person in Hugh Reid, a retired Air Force pilot. "He is one of smartest men alive," Mr. Sautner said. "I listened to his sayings and watched his actions — those were the reasons I picked him." When his mentor Mr. Reid left Richmond Bakery and took a job at Gene’s Bagels, Mr. Sautner asked to see the operation. Recognizing an opportunity to learn about bagels, Mr. Sautner began working nights at the company. "Frequently I’m asked if I’m just in the right place at the right time," he said. "For me, the bagel operation was just a chance to learn something new."

Practicing the same no-coffee-break strategy, employees at Gene’s Bagels discovered his proclivity for troubleshooting and repairing machinery. "I started to get calls all hours of the day and night asking how to fix things," he added. "You soon earn a reputation as someone who can get the job done."

In 1989, Mr. Sautner ascended to plant manager in what was then known as Pestritto Foods. While preparing to take his first vacation in 13 years, Mr. Sautner was instead persuaded by company owner Tony Pestritto to observe the company’s Blackwood, NJ, plant. Analogous to the skipped coffee break, Mr. Sautner’s decision to forgo a vacation propelled him to the next step in his career path.

3-YEAR PLAN.

The invitation resulted in a job offer to start a similar plant in Vinita, OK, a town of 6,000 people. Buying a house in one day, Mr. Sautner settled with his wife, three sons and two daughters in Vinita for the next three years. "Of all the places I’ve worked, the Midwest has one of the best workforces," Mr. Sautner said. "Many of the employees farmed by day and then worked second or third shift. We were a success because of the town."

Mr. Sautner’s dedication to Pestritto Foods extended far beyond typical job responsibilities. In response to the company’s acquisition by H.J. Heinz Bakery Products, Mr. Sautner welcomed its officials to town with the Vinita high school marching band, a red carpet and a Heinz logo painted on the side of the building, which was later used on Heinz’ business cards. While the band played Carly Simon’s "Anticipation," it wasn’t just Heinz officials taking notice. His drive and dedication also caught the attention of baking industry leaders.

After three years at the Vinita plant, Heinz Bakery asked Mr. Sautner to replicate the success of the Vinita plant in Bakersfield, CA. Following its successful turnaround, Mr. Saunter received a call from Paul Sneddon, H.J. Heinz c.e.o. Heinz sold its Canadian-based bakery business to Pillsbury in 1998.

"I knew the request to meet the c.e.o. either meant you were going to be promoted to another bakery or let go," Mr. Sautner said. The 1994 meeting resulted in the offer to become the Canadian operations manager overseeing the production operations at four Heinz manufacturing facilities in Toronto, ON; Montreal, QB; Edmonton, AB, and Buffalo, NY.

Despite the obvious promotion, Mr. Sautner experienced a moment of concern that this position would take him away from a familiar role. "Up until then, I had always lived in the town of the plant I ran," he said. "I’m a hands-on baker, and I live to wear the whites and play with dough," he said. "Baking is not work, it’s just fun."

Doubts aside, innovative thinking and a no-excuses attitude continued to be Mr. Sautner’s calling card. During his tenure with Heinz’ Canadian operations, he accepted an opportunity to produce the flagship bagel for Dunkin’ Donuts. The thing was, Heinz didn’t produce bagels nor did it possess the equipment to make bagels. Undeterred, Mr. Sautner accepted Dunkin’ Donuts’ 2-week deadline for a preproofed, frozen bagel, obtaining carte blanche from the c.e.o. He tapped into his earlier experience working nights at Gene’s Bakery and filled in missing aspects with his network of baker and supplier contacts. "Bakers don’t hide secrets," Mr. Sautner said. Despite competition from two dedicated bagel producers, Heinz won the Dunkin’ Donuts bid, leading the company into mainstream bagel production. The winning bid led Mr. Sautner to set up the company’s first bagel line in Montreal just nine months later.

BACK IN THE US.

Tired of the cold and snow in Canada, Mr. Sautner found his ticket back to the US in 1996 with a job offer from Richard Lan, president of Maple Leaf Foods, to become plant manager of the Oxnard, CA, bakery producing sourdough breads. Mr. Lan recalled that it took repeated calls to reach Mr. Sautner, but that looking back, it was one of the most important calls he’s made in his baking career.

"Al has the ability to visualize a project from the ideation stage right on through to completion," Mr. Lan said. "If you have something that needs to grow and start up smoothly, Al is the only guy to call."

After three successful years in Oxnard, Mr. Lan dispatched Mr. Sautner to the company’s Roanoke, VA, plant. He arrived in 1999 to find the plant reliant on misguided consultant decisions and incompatible equipment. "After much needed equipment adjustments, overhauls and complete reformulation of products, we began producing 21,500 cases daily and 85,000 per month positive to budget," Mr. Sautner said.

Known for his desire to ensure employee success, Mr. Sautner obtained financial backing from Mr. Lan to build a test lab and a 26-seat classroom where the company’s employees could learn the art of baking. The learning center was affectionately dubbed the Breaducation Center with Mr. Sautner as dean and vice-president of operations. The facility brought together sales, marketing and production staffs along with people from the floor as teachers.

In 2006, Mr. Sautner left the Roanoke plant and set up an office for his new position as Maple Leaf’s vice-president of engineering, US. Fielding problem calls from bakeries throughout the US, Mr. Sautner began to miss his baker’s whites and being on the floor working with dough.

Later that year, he received a call from Jim Zakian, vice-president of manufacturing, Otis Spunkmeyer, which would return him to his baking roots. "Al is someone who wants to get started on a project and run fast," Mr. Zakian said. "He’s able to deal with anything that comes up."

Mr. Zakian first heard of Mr. Sautner’s enthusiasm and dedication to baking after his welcoming bash for Heinz officials in Vinita in the early 1990s. With experience in frozen dough, sours, cakes, donuts and bagels, this would be Mr. Sautner’s first opportunity to learn about muffin and cookie production as well as his first plant producing packaged products.

NO LONE RANGER.

Since 2006, Mr. Sautner continues to make his mark at Otis Spunkmeyer. In his current role as plant manager, Mr. Sautner oversees production, maintenance, shipping and receiving, sanitation, human resources, quality control/assurance and plant accounting. Ideas generated from the flagship Cayce plant are shared with the other three Otis Spunkmeyer plants.

Mr. Sautner’s openness to change and a willingness to explore the unknown continues to define his career as well as the productivity and success of the companies that employ him. "When you combine Al’s addiction to making people better with detailed attention to urgency and the ability to get the job done, you have a man who grows both people and profits, and that’s an ideal combination," Mr. Lan said.

A paper-covered desk and plan diagrams on the dry-erase board attest to the fact that Mr. Sautner is always on the lookout for new ideas that could come from staff, networking or the Discovery Channel’s "How It’s Made." "I surround myself with good people, and that’s how you’re successful, but I also like to take chances," he said.

Soon after his arrival at Otis Spunkmeyer, Mr. Sautner created a one-of-a-kind lights-out freezer that eliminated the aisles and pathways of a typical freezer. The first-in, first-out freezer holds 960 pallets and uses a Pallet Runner robotic remote cart, providing added space, an enhanced retrieval method and one less worker in the freezer.

MAXIMAZATION AND EFFICIENCY.

Mr. Sautner’s attitude of measured risk is compatible with Otis Spunkmeyer’s goal to be first to market — meaning it’s fine if things aren’t done conventionally. "Creativity is a great thing for us, and it’s also a way to rise to the challenges and the expectations of our customers," Mr. Zakian said. The company works hard to maintain its entrepreneurial spirit with a minimum of hierarchy.

Drawing on his experience with the Breaducation Center, Mr. Sautner promotes continuing education both for himself and his staff. "You have to teach people how to handle things when something happens," he said. "Training is fine, but you also have to know what and how to change things."

The company’s most recent success was a cookie dough bag-in-box concept. After an initial quote from a co-packer in the $1 million dollar range, the Otis team completed the project in less than two weeks with minimal investment. Despite his enthusiasm for new ideas and projects, Mr. Sautner admitted that while he’s learned to be more careful about what he asks for, he asserted that "it can’t be done" is never the right answer.

"I’ve always believed that it’s better to do something than nothing at all, and if people aren’t afraid to share their ideas, then everyone benefits. The secret to our quality and success is people," he concluded. 

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