Robb MacKie
Robb MacKie, A.B.A. president and chief executive officer

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Ongoing, close interaction between the American Bakers Association and its members was key to policy successes for the group over the past two years and is becoming more important in addressing emerging local issues of national concern amid increasing dysfunction in government, said Fred Penny, outgoing A.B.A. chairman and Robb MacKie, A.B.A. president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Penny, who is president of Bimbo Bakeries USA, and Mr. MacKie conducted an “unscripted discussion” April 15 to kick off the All Membership Meeting of the A.B.A. annual meeting. The gathering was held April 15-17 at The Phoenician in Scottsdale.

The pace and the nature of change in baking have been the most notable development during his two years as chairman, Mr. Penny said.

“It’s change at retail, among customers — it almost feels like you don’t know what’s around the next corner,” he said. More recently costs have been moving higher “everywhere for everything,” he said, highlighting significant challenges with transportation.

Among policy developments at the A.B.A. over the past two years, legislation passed by Congress to establish labeling guidelines for bioengineered foods stands as a major achievement, he said.

“We worked with a coalition of food and beverage companies,” he said. “That went down to the wire. It was painful. We still don’t know all the details of the final regs. That’s still to be done. The alternative to a federal rule was truly disastrous. Going to the Hill was fascinating. You get to see what works and what doesn’t work. We had influence.”

Mr. MacKie described the process as requiring intense hands-on involvement among baking companies with about 10 “fly-ins” — bakers traveling to Washington for meetings with legislators and legislative staffs over a two-year period.

Fred Penny, Grupo Bimbo
Fred Penny, outgoing A.B.A. chairman and president of Bimbo Bakeries USA

Mr. Penny gave former Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas credit for helping shepherd the process forward.

“We went up to the wire, we went slightly over the wire, on the Vermont labeling situation,” Mr. MacKie said. “The reason we were successful is that the entire food industry from farm to fork rallied. It was a stark reminder that I don’t think the food industry gets credit for its economic impact, and we started doing some things with our association partners. When you bring the entire supply chain together, it’s amazing what you can get accomplished. And the A.B.A. played a big part of that thanks to Fred and his leadership.”

Mr. Penny also cited the B.&C.M.A. merger and the completion of a new strategic plan as key achievements over the last two years. Noting that Mr. Penny heads a very large North American business, Mr. MacKie credited the outgoing chairman for his dedication to the role over the past two years, beginning with an all-day meeting in Washington to sit down with members of the A.B.A. staff.

“It was never about Fred Penny or Grupo Bimbo,” Mr. MacKie said. “It always was about what’s best for industry. What can we do to make the association stronger?”

He noted the highly collaborative nature of the Executive Committee.

“It’s a small group,” Mr. Penny added. “There are only six members, and the makeup changes from year to year. There is vigorous discussion and debate. We deal with the issues. But you can be assured that the committee, once we deal with the issues, we come back with unified recommendations to the board. That’s very important. The committee leaves the A.B.A. in very good hands.”

Mr. MacKie said the A.B.A. is pursuing its legislative and regulatory agenda during a uniquely difficult period in Washington.

“We are trying to navigate what is a chaotic environment,” he said. “We could call two different people at the White House or two at the F.D.A. or two at the U.S.D.A. and ask the same question. You get two different responses to each. The hyper-partisan polarization in Washington that’s going on is a huge challenge. Maintaining open lines of communication with membership is crucial.

“When we call and need technical advice and support, we need an idea of how a particular policy is going to impact the industry. That kind of information helps us stand out from some of the other associations. When we speak on your behalf, we have as much data and information. Some of it is highly technical. Some of it is very practical.”

Of growing concern in the wake of recent regulatory controversies in Vermont and California is the need to rapidly address local problems before they fester. Mr. MacKie encouraged bakers to reach out quickly to the A.B.A. when a local problem develops.

“The sooner you surface an issue to the A.B.A., the better off we will be,” Mr. MacKie said. “Early intervention is the best intervention.”