THOMASVILLE, GA. — Commercial bakers’ robust response to the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the industry’s strength, created challenges for bakers focused on foodservice and has opened an opportunity for baking to address and perhaps reverse long-term challenges, said Bradley K. Alexander, chair of the American Bakers Association.

Mr. Alexander, who is chief operating officer of Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., was elected ABA chair in April, succeeding Erin Sharp, vice president of manufacturing of Kroger Co., Cincinnati.  In an interview with Milling & Baking News, Mr. Alexander acknowledged wide disparities in how the bakers have been affected by the pandemic.

“I think overall the bakery industry has done a really admirable job during COVID-19 keeping up with increased demand and shifting production around,” he said. “It has been hard for bakers that are primarily foodservice bakers — they’re having a tough time as the restaurant business has been down 50% to 60%. It’s encouraging that over the last few weeks we’ve started to see foodservice coming back, and hopefully they will come back strongly. For those dedicated foodservice bakers, I know it’s a struggle right now.”

Before the pandemic Flowers and the baking industry had been grappling for years with sales volume that has been flat to down, Mr. Alexander said.

 “So the challenge is to really make sure we educate consumers about the benefits of grain-based products and bread,” he said. “The other challenge is that the eating habits of consumers continually change, and bakers need to make sure we have products aligned with consumers tastes that are changing. My children are in the 25- to 32-year old range, and they eat differently than my wife and I do. Bakers have to adapt and have to make sure that we have products that appeal to the millennials, the consumers of the future.

“Fresh bread is a huge category. It’s the most profitable category in the grocery store, but it’s not growing, so we have to innovate as bakers, and we have to think differently. We have to come up with products that fit the new consumer.”

Robb MacKie, chief executive officer of the ABA, who participated in the interview, noted that many bakers see the pandemic as an opportunity for bakers to establish a positive reset with consumers.

“We have this unique opportunity where we’ve reconnected with consumers,” Mr. MacKie said. “It’s not just packaged bakery products but it’s also baking at home. We’ve really just been able to reestablish, I’d argue it’s always been there, but reestablish that deep emotional connection between our consumers and our products. Perhaps the biggest challenge but also opportunity is how we build on that momentum going forward. We always hear about the permission piece of it and we’ve got the permission now. How do we take advantage of it.”

Building new connections with consumers is precisely what Flowers has accomplished over the last few months, Mr. Alexander said.

“We are definitely getting consumers to try our products,” he said. “People who perhaps forgot about bread, and they’re doing different things and now are trying our products. We had one customer that told us that we have had over 2 million consumers try our products that had never tried them before. If we can retain a portion of those 2 million people that would be huge for us.”

Mr. Alexander has spent his entire 39-year career at Flowers, and during the course of the interview, he reflected on changes he has witnessed in baking and at Flowers and on the ever-greater importance of the industry to work in concert in an increasingly challenging environment for commercial baking.

Over its 101-year history, Flowers has had seven chief executives, and Mr. Alexander’s career has overlapped with the leadership of five of those CEOs — Langdon Flowers, Amos McMullian, George Deese, Allen Shiver and Ryals McMullian. While tradition is powerfully embraced at Flowers, so is the need to adapt and get ahead of oncoming change, Mr. Alexander said.

 “You can’t always do everything the same way you’ve always done it,” he said. “I think from the leadership of Mr. Flowers when he ran the company, or Amos, George, Allen and now Ryals, we’re constantly evolving as a company. We are constantly looking and questioning how can we do things differently and how can we do things better.”

Mr. Alexander’s connections to Flowers date back even earlier than his career with the company, which began in 1981. When his family moved to Thomasville while Mr. Alexander was in high school, he grew friendly with members of the founding Flowers family.

“They were pillars of the community, and when I graduated from college I was offered a job to join the company,” Mr. Alexander said. “When I was growing up I didn’t really realize how big the company was, and I thought about being part of this small company. At the time I think Flowers was around $350 million in sales. I was excited to learn about it and to have an opportunity and to be with a company I respected because of the Flowers namesake. I just wanted to be part of the team.”

"It’s a constant challenge, attracting talent to the baking industry." — Bradley K. Alexander, Flowers Foods, Inc.

A graduate of the University of Georgia in Athens, Mr. Alexander started with Flowers in a two-year training program in Atlanta, first on a bread route and then in production for several months followed by responsibilities in shipping. All the while, Mr. Alexander was studying at night for a master’s in business administration at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

“So, it was a pretty full schedule,” he said. “After a couple of years in Atlanta I moved to Thomasville the first time and was in corporate marketing. Then through the next 25 to 30 years I just did different jobs in the company in the sales and marketing function, including running the marketing group as vice-president of marketing. I was a bakery president in Louisiana, I ran a region, ran a division and then we set up the fresh packaged bread business unit a couple years ago. I’m now in my current role as chief operating officer, so I moved around about seven times with the company.”

The company’s expansion from a major regional baker to one with a broader geographic footprint stands as a significant milestone achieved over the course of his time at Flowers.

“We actually had a plan to grow geographically — to expand into Texas and into Arizona and into California,” he said. “Through some key acquisitions we also got into Maine and that part of the country.”

That was followed by the acquisition in 2013 of most of the major bread baking assets of Hostess Brands, which included the Wonder brand.

“The Wonder brand was a major milestone,” he said. “It was really important for us to have a national white bread brand. Then more recently we made key acquisitions like Dave’s Killer Bread in 2015, which has been very good. The latest was Canyon Bakehouse, a gluten-free company out of Colorado. That has been a nice addition to the portfolio as well. It’s a lot of different milestones but all went well and made the company stronger, whether geographically or with brands.”

Project Centennial, a major initiative launched by Flowers in 2016 to enhance efficiencies while elevating the company’s focus on marketing and innovation resulted in significant change in how the company conducts business. More generally, Mr. Alexander said certain core elements of Flowers culture were not changed as a result of Project Centennial.

“I think what’s similar is the respect that all of us have toward our mission, especially the home office, to support the plants,” he said. “They are not there to support the corporate office. We’re there to give them the tools to help them be successful, and if they are successful then the company is going to be successful. That’s always been there. Another part of our culture we try to maintain is just treating everybody the way you want to be treated. We don’t have big shots in our company. We don’t have people with big egos. It’s all about helping the company as a whole and not as the individual.”

Still, the company’s growth has created challenges in sustaining the small company feeling that first attracted Mr. Alexander to Flowers, he said.

“Years ago when I started, we knew all the people,” he said. “All the department heads, because we had a few bakeries. We knew a lot of the family members their kids and so forth. As we’ve grown in size as well as geographically it gets challenging to get to know everybody on a personal level. So one of the things that Flowers has always been very involved with, and I have as well, is getting out into the field into the plants, meeting the people, walking the bakeries, meeting with our department heads. The objective is to get to know them so they know us, so that we listen to any issues that they may have and hopefully if there are issues that we can help correct them. You can’t do that being in the office and you have to travel a lot.”

Given the company’s history of growth and its many significant recent moves, Flowers is well situated for success, Mr. Alexander said.

“We are in great position to succeed from the standpoint we have about 80% of our business in retail,” he said. “We know that foodservice has slowed down. We’ve been able to shift some of those lines, some of that production into making additional product for retail. We have strong brands with Nature’s Own, Wonder, Dave’s Killer Bread, Canyon Bakehouse and Tastykake. These are brands that consumers trust, and it’s evident by the first quarter we have great execution by our sales team, by the quality of the products we produce. So we’re positioned well for this year and the future years.”

Involvement in the ABA for Mr. Alexander dates back to pretty early in his career, longer in fact than anyone currently on the organization’s staff, Mr. MacKie noted.

“I was very fortunate to be involved with ABA for about 25 years,” he said. “I don’t have the exact date when I started. When George Deese was president of Flowers Bakery, the DSD (direct-store delivery) division, he got me involved in ABA. It’s been fantastic for me because first of all you learn a lot. Secondly, I’ve built some great relationships with suppliers and other bakers. It’s really opened my mind to just not what the company was doing but to really the global picture. I was a political science major undergraduate so the government and all that has always been interesting to me as well. Being able to go to Washington and go to the Hill and talk to senators about issues in the industry is always interesting to me. For me the involvement in ABA has been long, very beneficial and very rewarding.”

Mr. Alexander said the ABA’s value to baking in general and Flowers specifically was reaffirmed earlier this year as the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak became more evident, and Flowers was seeking resources.

“ABA is such a great resource for a big or small member,” he said. “A good example is when COVID-19 hit, we were looking to bring in extra masks for our employees. We were calling a lot of different people, and I happened to pick up the phone and call Robb at ABA. He gave us some contacts, and we actually used one of those to secure masks. So if you need something, they are such a great resource for the industry.

“Also, we are much better as an industry when we’re all working in the same direction and we’re all united. We’re a decent sized company so if we wanted to do that on our own, have our own people in Washington, we could. But we wouldn’t be as effective, and it would cost us more. So ABA brings us the relationships they have with FDA and the Department of Transportation and opens doors so we can at least talk to policy makers to make sure that they understand how actions they take can affect the industry. For us it’s been a great partnership, and we’ve been a member a long time. We definitely get our money’s worth.”

Mr. MacKie said the ABA takes pride in its ability to serve as a valued resource for the industry and ABA member companies.

“We just don’t talk about it a lot,” he said. “We talk a lot about what we’re doing for the industry and in Washington and now the State. The example that Brad used was someone we’ve known for a long time. When we have an individual member who needs something — it can be a business relationship, it can be guidance from the FDA or what have you — we’re doing a lot of that one-on-one work. We just don’t talk about it a whole lot for obvious reasons, but I’m glad Brad mentioned that we’re helping to solve business challenges for our respective members regardless of their size.”

With unemployment surging, difficulties attracting labor are not as severe a problem it has been over the last several years. Mr. Alexander said a greater problem for bakers has been the number of hired workers missing work for reasons related to COVID-19 (not necessarily actual illnesses). He said attracting skilled labor is not an issue that will be going away.

“People have been concerned about working,” he said. “However, we’ve actually had better attendance lately.

“It’s always a challenge to find employees. We have several of our own initiatives, and ABA has additional initiatives we’ve tapped into. For example, there is the USO Pathfinder Program. There are about 200,000 people who get out of the military every year and are going back into the workforce. ABA and Flowers have tapped into that, looking at people who are transitioning back into business. We’ve had some success there. But it’s a constant challenge attracting talent to the baking industry. ABA is just setting up a new site called for people that are looking into getting into baking.”

While he was very young when he decided to join Flowers and the baking industry, Mr. Alexander is confident he made the right career choice.

“First of all, it’s a great company,” he said. “It’s been extremely rewarding for me, and the company has given me a lot of opportunities, so a great choice. For me the baking industry is something very admirable. You can see your products in the stores. You eat them. You taste them. You are helping to feed America. From that standpoint I think it’s very rewarding. To me it’s a great industry to be in especially right now when you think about how important it is to supply food during these unsettling times. Consumers can count on Flowers, and other bakers to have food in stores. And that’s one less thing to have to worry about.