Joe Schwebel had a habit of keeping to-do checklists.
And he loved to mark items on his list “complete.”
Over the course of a 52-year career at Schwebel Baking Co., Mr. Schwebel managed to complete too many tasks to count but enough to transform a modest baking business into a regional powerhouse, gain a reputation as a quiet but effective industry leader, help spur the baking and milling industries to establish the Grain Foods Foundation and earn himself election to the Baking Hall of Fame.
The third generation of his family to lead Schwebel Baking, Joseph M. Schwebel began his career in a way familiar to many baking executives — running a delivery route. Still, when he joined Schwebel Baking in 1960, he brought something to the job not so typical in the industry — a degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
At Wharton, Mr. Schwebel wrote his thesis about problem solving. Still, his son Lee Schwebel recalls his father emphasizing that his most valuable business lessons were derived not at school but from work with customers.
“You don’t learn a bakery business out of a book,” Lee Schwebel recalls his father teaching. “It’s what we call a ‘street business.’ All the action, in stores, with customers, in restaurants, that’s where you learn.”
Mr. Schwebel was restaurant and institutional sales manager at Schwebel Baking until he became vice-president of sales in 1981. He was promoted to president in 1984, a position he retained until his death in 2012. Over the course of his lengthy career at Schwebel’s, the company’s annual sales ballooned to more than $150 million, from only about $2 million in 1960.
Based in Youngstown, Ohio, Schwebel operates Ohio baking plants in Hebron, Solon and Youngstown. The company serves customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Schwebel’s offers a range of fresh baked foods, including white and variety bread, buns, specialty rolls, brown ‘n serve rolls, bagels and flat bread. In addition to the Schwebel’s brand, the company sells breakfast bread under the Cinnabon and Sun-Maid brands and Roman Meal bread.
The company’s roots date back to 1906, when it was established by Mr. Schwebel’s grandparents Joseph and Dora Schwebel. In the company’s early days, the Schwebels sold 40 loaves of bread each day in their hometown of Campbell, just southeast of Youngstown. The company grew gradually over the next 20 years, but Joseph Schwebel died suddenly in 1928, just before the Great Depression. The business survived and ultimately thrived for decades under the leadership of Dora Schwebel, who died in 1964. She was inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame in 2009.
Speaking at Joe Schwebel’s induction ceremony, Lee Schwebel described his father as a “true leader.”
“He was always a leader, never a boss,” Lee Schwebel, a vice-president of marketing at Schwebel’s, added. “You wanted to work hard for him, and you didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Lee Schwebel also commented on his father’s checklists.
“He always had a list of things to do on a legal pad,” Lee Schwebel said. “He always was working hard to check off items.”
The checklists were emblematic of Mr. Schwebel’s belief in action-based solutions. For example, when the low-carbohydrate dieting craze nearly broke the back of the commercial baking industry, he helped establish and fund the Grain Foods Foundation in 2004. He was a longtime member of the American Bakers Association, 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 the American Society of Baking 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, 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,” Lee Schwebel said.
Mr. Schwebel never needed to raise his voice “because he had everyone’s respect,” his son said.
This sentiment was echoed by others in the baking industry.
Patrick Callaghan, a co-founder of the Grain Foods Foundation and a retired president of Pepperidge Farm, Inc., Norwalk, Conn., remembers Mr. Schwebel as someone focused on action.
“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, said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the A.B.A., 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.”
In working to establish the G.F.F., he also helped spearhead the collaborative effort between the A.B.A. and the North American Millers’ Association that led to the foundation’s creation.
“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 inductee, non-executive chairman of Flowers Foods and another G.F.F. “founding father.”
Mr. Schwebel’s leadership was powerfully felt among staff members at Schwebel’s. He had a deep trust in people, especially associates at the baking company, said John Phillips, 1997 A.S.B. chairman, a former Schwebel Baking plant manager and now Great Lakes regional sales manager for Red Star Yeast.
“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,” he said.
“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. “Joe was a brand builder, always a few steps ahead of the rest of us, just like his grandmother.”