KANSAS CITY — The future of the baking industry headlined the conversation during BEMA’s C-Suite Virtual Roundtable, which gathered top executives from the baking industry to speak with Kerwin Brown, BEMA president and chief executive officer, and Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association (ABA). The roundtable was moderated by BEMA board members Jason Ward, president of AMF Bakery Systems, and Mike Pierce, president of The Austin Co.

Overall, Mr. MacKie reported optimism for the future of the baking industry, citing its resilience during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But rising costs of raw materials and a shift in presidential administration gave room for pause.

“We have a renewed connection with consumers, but we have some real headwinds coming our way,” he said.

In addition to managing input costs of raw materials, reducing labor costs was also top-of-mind. Automation and innovation were two themes that kept coming up to address the workforce issue.

“Talent is so short, whether skilled or raw, so the more you can automate the more you can reduce your impact of labor on cost and improve your overall schedules,” said Mike Pierce, president, The Austin Co.

But automation doesn’t completely resolve the lack of labor, but rather changes it, said Allen Wright, vice president, Hansaloy.

“The challenge for us is automation creates a need for a different employee,” he said. “And people who understand controls and automation are harder to find. So there are two sides to the automation equation because they are still machines that need attention.”

During the conversation, Mr. Brown also pointed out how the pandemic has solidified baker and supplier relationships, citing conversations he has had with baking companies.

“They haven’t been looking for new vendors because of the challenges of the pandemic, it’s faster and easier to work with people you know who already know your products’ specs,” he said.

Supply chain challenges, however, could push bakers to look for new vendors, Mr. Brown noted.

Despite the headwinds, however, Mr. MacKie reiterated that there is a lot of opportunity for the baking industry post-COVID-19, but the industry must be diligent.

“We’re going to have to be proactive about a lot of things,” he said. “Another theme that came out of the ABA Convention was the speed at which change is happening. COVID has been an accelerant. It’s going to change the pace of things that happen.”

The C-Suite Virtual Roundtable is a part of an ongoing series of virtual events bringing industry leaders together. Previous roundtables have brought together sales professionals and leaders in food safety. BEMA’s upcoming virtual roundtable will address human resources challenges. HR professionals can register for the event here.