It’s always come back to baking. For Jeff Dearduff, ­senior vice-president, supply chain services, ARYZTA Americas, Los Angeles, his love of this craft spans longer than his 36-year career in the industry. Like many interests in his life, Mr. Dearduff, Baking & Snack’s 2014 Operations Executive of the Year, was introduced to the baking industry by his father, Bob, a longtime bakery maintenance engineer.

 At just 12 years old, Mr. Dearduff would tag along on his dad’s maintenance calls and watch him solve problems on machinery that he had designed. It was in these bakery plants that a boy watched the interaction between a man, a machine and a loaf of bread. He might have been daydreaming about someday becoming a racecar driver, but he didn’t realize something bigger was happening.

“What it did for me was teach me to love the smell of fresh bread,” Mr. Dearduff remembered. “Bread coming off the line was hot and fresh; most people only see it on the kitchen counter or at the store. But, even as a kid, to see it going down the line, coming off and heading out, that was pretty cool.”

 And it wasn’t just seeing the product; Mr. Dearduff was fascinated with all the pieces of the process coming together. “I think part of it was the fact that my dad was the one who was in there solving problems. There was something going on that required thought and direction,” he said.  And so, a baker was born.

Along the career path

Since he started in the industry, Mr. Dearduff has worked for just three companies. He’s not a “job hopper,” nor does he go into an opportunity keeping his eye out for the next one to come along. He’s rooted; he’s committed. And he’s not afraid of taking leaps of faith, which is exactly what landed him at ARYZTA roughly two-and-a-half years ago.

After a previous 28-year run at Chicago-based East Balt ended, Mr. Dearduff came to ARYZTA as its vice-­president of operations after being approached by Dan Bailey, the company’s senior vice-president, McDonald’s business unit. “Looking back, I probably didn’t understand exactly what I was getting into with ARYZTA,” Mr. Dearduff recalled. “But I understood Dan Bailey, and I understood the Fresh Start side of the company.” That was all it took, and his leap of faith launched him on a career trajectory that continues to skyrocket in a company known for moving at breakneck speed.

As Mr. Dearduff pointed out, “ARYZTA moves fast,” and that couldn’t be a better fit for a man who spent more than 20 years behind the wheel of a racecar. “No day is the same as the last, and it’s never boring or uneventful. ARYZTA has a great, highly driven team around the business and operations. When you expect to succeed, you do succeed.” Today, Mr. Dearduff leads a group of supply chain support teams, known as ARYZTA Supply Chain Services, which not only support bakery acquisitions (see “Partnering Behind the Scenes” on Page 28) but also come together to develop operational improvements.

“What makes ARYZTA successful is that it is not afraid to take risks,” he said. “This company is all about putting the absolute highest quality, the best foods out there, and that’s the driver.”

All Mr. Dearduff’s professional experience has steered him to this place at ARYZTA. A quick peek under the hood of his LinkedIn page reveals a list of more than a dozen areas of expertise including maintenance management, engineering and product development. “It takes a wide range of knowledge to get through even a day in this industry,” he explained. “At this level, there’s never a day where one skill stands out over the other, but the base of it all is having the organizational skills to know what you need to call on in order to solve the next problem.”

This wealth of skills is something that is not lost on those he has worked with. During a transitional time in his career, Mr. Dearduff did consulting work for various bakers and suppliers. “These are people who had a tremendous impact on my career and where I am now,” he said. “They gave me opportunities to make a difference in their businesses.”

Mr. Dearduff left his mark on them, as well. “Jeff Dearduff is one of the most dynamic bakery executives ever,” noted Cordia Harrington, CEO, The Bun Companies, Nashville, TN.

Russ Bundy, owner of Bundy Baking Solutions, Urbana, OH, also worked with him during a pivotal moment in Mr. Dearduff’s career. “Jeff’s dedication and passion for the baking industry are evident in all that he does,” Mr. Bundy said. “And his unique combination of experience, knowledge and ability allows him to take on a wide range of projects and deliver measurable results.”

Taking the curves

Mr. Dearduff grew up in the industry, and to say he’s experienced a lot of change would be quite the understatement.

Just think, four decades ago, when he followed his father onto the plant floor, hairnets and smocks weren’t even required. “I was in my baseball uniform and cleats watching him work or coach other people to find solutions and get the bread going down the line,” he remembered.

Today, automation and food safety are changing the game; interaction has given way to monitoring controls. “You used to be able to walk up next to a machine, and now you have to stay back because of safety and other regulations,” Mr. Dearduff said.

And technology is speeding up the change even more. “What I do today is far different than what I did 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s more business-driven, and the to-do list is more procedural and policy-related.” Instead of problem-solving in front of a piece of equipment, Mr. Dearduff now maps out business strategy for ARYZTA’s supply chain.

But as operations become more hands-off, and face-to-face communication wanes in the age of the iPad’s “ding,” he knows people couldn’t be more critical. “We can invest in all the greatest machinery and technology, but people are still who pull it all together,” he said. “We may be physically further from the line today, but people are still the cause of what happens.”

Navigating the course

In an industry where technology might be outpacing the talent, a leader who can teach is of the utmost importance. Mr. Dearduff knows the road to success is paved with skills that people are taught. This philosophy is at the heart of his management style. “I think industry knowledge, good treatment of people and a calm demeanor help anyone be a leader. It works for me,” he said.

Along with his management and leadership skills, Mr. Dearduff’s people skills never slip off the radar. “On top of his dedication, experience and knowledge, Jeff is a tremendous human being,” Mr. Bundy was quick to point out.

For example, when he walks into a bakery, Mr. Dearduff lets the general manager take the lead. “I want him to take me through his business on the plant floor,” he explained. “What’s he doing differently today than he did yesterday? How is he improving processes? What does the quality of the food we’re making feel like today? I think there’s an opportunity for anyone on an executive level to interact with people in the plant.”

With his management style, Mr. Dearduff places a heavy emphasis on listening. “Listen twice; speak once,” he said. “That allows me to formulate feedback at the appropriate time, without overtaking the conversation or over-dictating direction.” Empowering plant managers to walk him through their bakeries allows Mr. Dearduff to more accurately determine if the company is spending money in the right places. “I like helping people succeed, helping them find their way and seeing that they have every chance to make a difference,” he said.

Watching his father all those years ago laid the foundation for his ability to walk an employee through a problem and come up with a solution in the most efficient and effective manner. “It’s listen, think, act,” he said.

“He has the ability to bring complicated and difficult processes to a level that people can understand and execute,” Ms. Harrington said.

On the flip side, Mr. Dearduff has a set of standards by which he expects his employees to perform, also in the spirit of efficiency and effectiveness, as well as — if not above all — safety. “Baked foods are live entities, and we have to manage that from one end of the line to the other,” he explained. He coined the term “smurgent” to illustrate the point. “It’s about being smart, safe and urgent,” he explained. “When you put smart and safe in front of urgent, problems get solved.”

Downshifting, but not slowing

On some level, receiving this award felt bittersweet to Mr. Dearduff. Although it was his father who introduced him to the industry, the demands of his job at times kept him from spending time with his own kids.

“As I look back, I think about the six kids that I’ve raised,” he said. “It’s fantastic to be recognized for your hard work, but you leave a lot on the table. You reflect on what success costs. It does come with a cost.” Now with two grandchildren, Mr. Dearduff makes a concerted effort to slow down and spend time with his family’s newest additions, making a point to eat breakfast with them every morning.

A true understanding of work-life balance might not be possible without his wife, Wendy. “She’s my rock,” he said. “She challenges me. She expects me to do better with the grandkids than I did for anyone else.”

All in all, it’s been a helluva ride for Mr. Dearduff. In hindsight, would he do things differently? Probably. Would he do it all again? Undoubtedly. He’s a master of the extra-curricular activities, the Jack of all trades (see “Arts and crafts, Dearduff style” on Page 22), but he’s tied to the path he’s chosen. As he was quick to point out, baking is a tight-knit industry that has, for centuries, been responsible for feeding the world. “I could have done anything,” he said, reflecting on his life in the business. “I could have gone into any industry. But this is what I chose, and I love it.”