As a co-sponsor of the 2019 IBIE, the American Bakers Association knows the value of bringing key players together to tackle technological, educational and business challenges within the industry.

Baking & Snack spoke with A.B.A. chair Erin Sharp, group vice-president, manufacturing, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, about current trends and the issues facing the industry as bakers prepare for IBIE in September.

Ms. Sharp joined Kroger in 2011 as vice-president, operations for the manufacturing division. She was promoted to her current role in 2013. Before joining the company, she served as vice-president of manufacturing for Sara Lee Corp. In that role, Ms. Sharp led the manufacturing and logistics operations for the central region of its U.S. Fresh Bakery Division.

Baking & Snack: What emerging consumer and retail trends are impacting the baking industry?

Erin Sharp: We are clearly seeing more artisanal, European-style products at retail. They are very hot right now. This is leading to the need for quicker changeovers and greater production flexibility. We also are seeing a lot of interest in plant-based dietary patterns. This presents some opportunities for the baking industry. After all, bread may be the original plant-based food.

How are shopping trends such as e-commerce and in-store pick-up changing consumer behavior?

Ms. Sharp: The baking industry is being pressed to meet consumers where they shop and in the manners that they purchase. The whole e-commerce and click-and-collect markets are evolving very rapidly, and bakers need to work with retailers to bring insights and distribution efficiencies to the table. Bakers also need to retool their electronic and social media marketing to keep core customers. The good news from the A.B.A.-F.M.I. “Power of Bakery 2019” study shows a strong connection between consumers and bakery. We just need to adapt to the new sales paths.

Robb MacKie, left, president and c.e.o., A.B.A., and Erin Sharp, A.B.A. chairman and group vice-president, manufacturing, The Kroger Co. at the association's 2019 annual meeting.
There is a current push to focus on the supermarket perimeter, including in-store bakeries. How are bakers creating opportunities for differentiation in the bread aisle?

Ms. Sharp: It is interesting, and I wholeheartedly agree with the “Power of Bakery 2019” findings that, while in-store is getting the lion’s share of attention, the real trip driver and sales strength is in the center bakery aisle. What was very telling for me was that we need to stop looking at the perimeter and center store as competitors but as complementary opportunities. Our consumers don’t see them as separate, so we need to reorient our thinking.

What ways can companies actively overcome the anti-wheat/anti-sugar sentiments we’re seeing? How are A.B.A. and other organizations providing support to turn the tide and increase the overall consumption of baked goods?

Ms. Sharp: This is a big challenge, but with some common sense and smart communications, we can overcome it. The findings from “Power of Bakery 2019” and the Gen Z and millennial study show that the anti-wheat and carb sentiments may be waning. That said, the industry has to do a better job connecting with consumers, especially younger people, and telling the good story about our products.

A.B.A. has also contributed to the effort by funding several important research projects around dietary patterns, the benefits of grains for infants and toddlers and the benefits of fiber-rich diets. This has allowed the Grain Foods Foundation to engage with key influencers on a substantive level.

How do International shows help A.B.A. members improve their businesses and operations?

Ms. Sharp: Just like other manufacturing sectors, the world of baking is rapidly shrinking. As a result, A.B.A. and its members have strategically increased their international presence and engagement. Last fall at iba, held in Germany, we held a very productive joint meeting between the A.B.A. board and our European sister organization AIBI. We followed that with a strong presence at their bi-annual Congress in the U.K. and will reconvene at IBIE in September.

The convergence of issues — both policy and marketplace — is fascinating. There is a wealth of mutual learning on issues such as energy efficiency, sustainable packaging, workforce and consumer trends. For example, at iba 2015, the American bakers spent a lot of time focused on energy efficiency and then challenged the U.S. exhibitors to showcase their energy-efficient equipment at IBIE 2016. This also helped launch the highly successful A.B.A. Energy Star program, which has offered tremendous savings to bakers.

How will A.B.A.’s new strategic plan strengthen the baking industry for the long run?

Ms. Sharp: The central theme around the A.B.A. strategic plan is how to better promote and grow the baking industry. The A.B.A. Board Task Force, which worked tirelessly to develop the plan, addressed the growth aspect head-on. We need to embrace getting the industry into a growth position. The plan then spells out several key areas to assist the industry: protecting the industry from government overreach in key states; closer collaboration with our supply chain partners, especially our sales channel partners; positioning the industry as a career of choice and better telling the story of the contribution of the industry to the fabric of the country.

Bakeries are using digital data management and other forms of automation to make up for a lack of labor. What other initiatives help with filling the skills gap?

Ms. Sharp: There are a number of innovative initiatives occurring in the industry that should help address the workforce issue. Regarding automation, the focus is on reducing low-value activity so that those skilled associates can be trained and focused on higher-value activities. Also many companies are getting creative around the talent pools, including veterans, women and second-chance employees.

What steps has A.B.A. taken in the past three years to address these labor issues?

Ms. Sharp: A.B.A. has a very active human resources community that is at the forefront of exploring and developing the industry’s strategies to attract the best and brightest to fulfilling bakery careers. There is a lot of sharing of innovative practices as well. A.B.A. also is collaborating with the other industry organizations to bring some combined strength to attracting and training new skilled talent for the industry. The newly formed Bakers Alliance is hard at work on those efforts. A.B.A. also partnered with NAM’s Hire Our Heroes program in Houston to highlight the great opportunities in the industry for veterans leaving military service.

What leadership qualities are critical to ensure longevity in the industry?

Ms. Sharp: It is vital for today’s industry leaders to be flexible, nimble and able to adapt to the changing workforce and marketplace. They have to inspire and motivate their teams to be fully engaged in moving toward the future. It isn’t an easy process, but it is vital. I am not aware of a single baker who isn’t going through some cultural transformation to be nimbler in the new, constantly evolving landscape.

What tools does A.B.A. offer to prepare the next generation of leadership?

Ms. Sharp: A.B.A. has several targeted tools that are really preparing the next generation of leadership for the industry. The more well-known program is A.B.A.’s NextGen Baker, designed to develop current and future senior executives with the active participation of the A.B.A. board. A.B.A. is planning a can’t miss NextGen Baker Global Leadership Forum at IBIE with an all-star lineup.

Equally as important is A.B.A.’s Front Line Leadership program. Designed for new or aspiring line supervisors in bakeries, the intensive program puts these line leaders through a series of exercises and real-world baking scenarios. This prepares them to develop and manage high-performing operations teams that drive efficiency, innovation and engagement. The future of baking really depends upon this group of unsung heroes, so it is vital for the industry to invest in them through Front Line Leadership training.