Rich Holland says his bakery skills come second to his people skills. 

Bakery skills meet people skills
Over the years, Mr. Holland has become a beacon of leadership for TreeHouse’s baked goods division — all 17 plants and 5,500 employees — as the company moves forward on its TreeHouse 2020 continuous improvement initiative. 

“TreeHouse 2020 is a methodical approach for all our plants,” Mr. Holland said, noting that Princeton is one of the furthest along in the initiative, to which he credits the continuous improvement efforts from the facility’s operations team. 

But truth be told, if you need to streamline a plant — even turn one that’s losing more than $1 million a month into making that much, such as in the company’s Azusa, Calif., facility — Rich Holland is your guy.

“I approach problems by thinking outside the box,” he said. “Most people do that, but I’m very analytical and methodical in tackling problems.” 

For example, he said, producing 2,000 cases on a line doesn’t mean much without documented factors such as labor, ingredient usage or theoretical max output.

“You establish your baseline first, then make adjustments one variable at a time,” he suggested. “As long as you know where you started, and you have a reliable way to measure, you can always go back.” 

In his mind, Mr. Holland’s bakery skills come second to his people skills. He hesitates to call himself a baker; he’d tell you he’s more the “people” person.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” he told attendees during his training and retention breakout session at the Technical Conference for the American Bakers Association (A.B.A.), for which he is an education committee member. “I don’t really know about baking; I just know about people.”

But those who work for him call that a half-truth.

“We all know he has the technical capability; baking runs through his blood,” said Terry Melton, TreeHouse director of operations, cookies and crackers. “But the best thing — what ties it all together — is his people skills. He brings people together to work toward a common goal. He’s a mentor.”

During the breakout session, Mr. Holland defined the three most important assets on a bakery plant floor: people, people and people (a comment that garnered a sermon-style “Amen” from the back of the room).

“We buy the best equipment we possibly can, but until we fix the fundamentals — how we treat, train and retain our employees — nothing will get better,” he said.

Mr. Holland believes at the heart of training is teaching employees the best way to operate. He has a mantra: “There’s only one best way.”

There are various ways to accomplish a task, but in Mr. Holland’s world of continuous improvement, there’s no room for variety. A worker who takes just 30 seconds longer to load a truck might think, “This is my way, what’s the big deal?” But do the math: Sixty pallets on a truck means 30 minutes longer for every truck. “In a day, we’re getting out 15 fewer trucks that way,” Mr. Holland noted.