For George Deese, “The Flowers Way” is always about trying to do the right thing. It’s about going beyond the call of duty, beyond what’s expected and asking, “How can I help?”

“At Flowers, we’re in business to support others — not just those who rely on our products but also those who rely on our company to be successful — our shareholders, our team members and associates, and the communities in which we operate our business,” explained Mr. Deese, chairman of the Thomasville, GA-based company.

It can be argued that Mr. Deese — whose career spans a half  century — has seen it all when it comes to the baking industry. While that’s not exactly true, it certainly accounts for his unique perspective about how people, companies and events over the years have influenced how the industry operates today.

In an interview with Baking & Snack, Mr. Deese shared his thoughts on leadership, Flowers Foods, his career and his outlook for the future.

Baking & Snack: What does being inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame mean to you, your family and your colleagues at Flowers Foods?

George Deese: My family is very proud of my induction to the Baking Hall of Fame. I, in turn, am grateful for their support and appreciate the many sacrifices they have made throughout my career. While I thank the American Society of Baking for this honor, I must accept it on behalf of the many men and women at Flowers Foods with whom I have had the privilege to work. The culture of teamwork, support and personal commitment that exists at Flowers is special and has allowed the accomplishments and successes that have made my career with Flowers so enjoyable. 

In your 50-year career, what are the biggest events that have impacted the industry?

Reflecting on the many changes that I have seen over the course of my career, they all have something in common: meeting the needs of the marketplace. Certainly other factors — the tremendous amount of bakery consolidation, especially in the last few years, the increased process automation and the innovative introduction of technology in production — have all made a difference, but they are all in response to the ever-changing needs of the market.

Likewise, what were the greatest milestones for Flowers Foods? How did you participate in these?

One of the most important milestones was when Flowers Baking Co. made an initial public offering in 1968 and became Flowers Industries. I was not directly involved in this, having only been with the company four years, but this action set the course for where Flowers Foods is today. Going public provided us with the resources to grow through expansion and acquisition and to ­invest in new technology that would keep us efficient.

Another milestone for Flowers occurred in 1996 with the acquisition of Keebler Foods, whose products were outside our traditional bread and snack cake business. When we sold Keebler five years later, we realized an excellent return on our investment for our shareholders. We also gained a tremendous amount of operational knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, it gave our leadership at the time the confidence to consider other expansion possibilities. So when I was named CEO in 2002, the direction and growth strategy that we proposed in 2003 and have been pursuing since was evolutionary, not revolutionary.

How would you assess the state of the baking industry today and going forward?

I am very positive about the future of our industry. The challenges and opportunities we face today are really not that different from those of the past. It’s all about understanding what consumers want and then finding a way to meet those needs. That sounds easy, but it’s not. People have been consuming bread for thousands of years — how do we keep it an important part of today’s meals? Additionally, how do we keep the products we make relevant to today’s consumers?

Who has had the most influence on your career, and why?

I don’t believe I could ever single out one individual as the most influential. I have been inspired by the legacy and vision of both W.H. and Langdon Flowers and have enjoyed working with so many talented people over the years. The culture of teamwork and spirit of cooperation at Flowers has allowed me to learn much along the way.

Heeth Varnedoe taught me especially valuable lessons. From Heeth, who was COO at Flowers and my supervisor for many years, I learned the fundamentals of operations. He also taught me that humility is a big part of being an effective leader. Most important, from Amos McMullian, who served as the CEO at Flowers for 24 of his 50 years with the company, I learned the finance of the business and that “growth for growth’s sake” should never be a goal of the company. The focus should always be on being the best that we can possibly be. If we got bigger as a result, that would be a wonderful thing. In addition, he taught me a great deal about leadership and how to become an effective CEO.   

What are the biggest technological or new product innovations that have affected the baking industry?

With regard to product innovation, Nature’s Own was definitely ahead of its time when it was introduced in 1977. With no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, it was one of the first of its kind in the markets that we served in the South. Today, it is the No. 1 bread brand in the US, leading the soft variety category, which it helped create.

In regard to technological advancements, the introduction of integrated proof-and-bake manufacturing systems in the 1970s that were a lot more cost-effective was a true innovation. Another technological innovation with great impact is the company-wide integration of data from inventory and production through logistics, distribution and administrative functions. These interconnected systems share data that allow us to be more productive, more efficient and less reactive as we continue to meet our commitments to the market.

What’s the best piece of advice you received during your career?

Curtis Chapman, a senior executive with the company, once told me, “Every day, always do your best at the job you’re doing and you will be recognized and rewarded for your contributions,” and I firmly believe that. For me, it gets back to teamwork — if everyone does what he or she is supposed to do, the entire team will be successful.

What do you know today that you would have told yourself as you started out in the baking industry?

I would stress to my younger self the importance of gaining knowledge, self-education and continuous improvement. Whether it’s learning about leadership, general business practices or industry-specific trends, you can never get too much education — balancing that knowledge, of course, with day-to-day practical experience.

What’s the next chapter for you?

Well, first and foremost, I intend to spend more time with my children and grandchildren. Also, I will continue to serve as chairman of the board for Flowers Foods and be involved with the company’s strategic direction. I will also remain available, as needed, for the current and future leadership of the company — just as the previous leaders have been available for me.