For some family-owned bakeries, the keys to long-term survival rely more on managing the family than operating the business.
“There is an expression that I heard a long time ago that the first generation starts the business, the second generation grows the business, and third generation either sells the business or blows it,” noted Kim Bickford, chief executive officer and third generation owner of Clyde’s Delicious Donuts, Addition, Ill., which celebrated its centennial last year.
“I’ve been here long enough. I guess we haven’t blown it,” he added.
History is littered with dozens of reasons why family businesses fail, including family squabbles, sibling shareholders who want to cash out or heirs apparent searching for more exciting careers. Industry veteran Bill Zimmerman Sr. comes from a family of bakers where his father, part of the third generation, didn’t want to run the Colorado Springs, Colo., business.
Today, he noted, some companies face unfunded pension liabilities, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to sell. Inheritance taxes have ended bakery dynasties. Regional family bakeries have gotten squeezed by the demands that national, big box retailers put on their suppliers. And then once-in-a-lifetime events like the pandemic have forced bakeries to sell or to fold.
Perhaps the main issue involves the lack of skilled labor coupled with an aging workforce.
“From an operations perspective, we continue to kick the can down the street about educating our workforce to understand what manufacturing is about,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We are in dire straits, in my opinion, about educating people and replenishing the vast amount of knowledge that we’re losing because people leave the industry. It’s not so much about the family but finding people who can support the company as it goes forward.”
At Neri’s Bakery, third generation Dominick, now president, and Paul Neri, vice president, made a commitment to hand over the family business in better condition than when they received it.
“I can’t tell you how many times my father has been asked, ‘Why do we work so hard?’ and his answer every time is, ‘I do it for my kids and my grandchildren and nephews,’ ” noted Brett Neri-Ferraro, head of human resources and fourth generation family member along with Anthony M. Neri, general manager; Anthony Frank Neri, plant manager, and Salvatore Neri Jr., manager of the sweet goods department.
“That’s a big part of why we’re standing strong as opposed to other businesses in our industry,” she said.
Ms. Neri-Ferraro recalled how she would wake up some mornings and her father and uncles still hadn’t returned home from the bakery, located in Port Chester, NY.
“They were always at work,” she said. “They’ve groomed us and shown us what it’s like to experience failure, and that’s a big part of why we’re so successful.”
Today, Neri’s fourth generation takes an active role in the bakery’s operation.
“We’re all here every day,” Anthony Neri observed.
That doesn’t mean the older third generation doesn’t have a say in the business.
“The key to our success is letting them think that they still are in control and that they’re still holding the torch. No, I’m just joking around,” Anthony Neri said. “They’re very much involved here. We try to walk in the footsteps of our father and uncles. They’ve clearly been doing something right for this business to be successful after all these years.”
At Clyde’s, Kim Bickford and his brother, Kent, who is retired, learned the ropes from their father, Bill Bickford, and from on-the-job training. However, Josh Bickford, executive vice president, strategic initiatives and fourth generation family member, was recruited back into the bakery for his IT and administration expertise after attaining a finance degree from the University of Illinois.
Over the years, he’s received informal training in other parts of the operation as well as in marketing and sales. That’s something his father appreciates.
“The next generation always brings a questioning attitude,” Kim Bickford said. “Is there a better way of doing something? They come in with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. So that’s a key to success when the next generation joins the business.”
Among the changes included a new image and rebranding that leverages the fun of donuts with the “smiles all around” campaign.
“We have this wonderful legacy business of donuts, but there is not a more fun product to be making than donuts,” Josh Bickford said. “We have an opportunity to take that to the next level and be industry experts.”
Kim Bickford pointed to another key to long-term success: bringing in outside managers to support the family business.
“In my career we have hired some very good team members and leaders,” he said. “We have been very blessed to have had good businesspeople contributing to our success in the last three decades or more.”
At Flowers Foods, turning the century mark serves as a reminder that the 100-year rule is meant to be broken, according to Brad Alexander, chief operating officer of the Thomasville, Ga.-based company, which celebrated its centennial in 2019.
“One thing 100 years in business will teach you is that the only constant is change,” Mr. Alexander said. “Everything is evolving and today faster than ever. If you don’t adapt, you won’t be around for another 100.”
During the past five years or so, he added, Flowers has taken a deep dive into all areas of its business and even established a transformation office to manage the success of its key initiatives that will shape the future of the company.
“Our digital projects are particularly exciting,” Mr. Alexander said. “When implemented, they will bring us even closer to the consumer, increase our operational efficiency and deliver real-time insights that will allow us to make faster and smarter business decisions. The three initial digital areas or domains we’re working on are e-commerce, autonomous planning and what we’re calling ‘bakery of the future.’ Our team is at the heart of this work. We’re committed to its ongoing development and building capabilities as one of our strategic priorities.”
At Clyde’s, Josh Bickford sees the potential future in his seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son and the excitement in their eyes knowing that their father is the “cool dad” who makes donuts.
And besides, who knows what the fifth generation will bring to the bakery?
“I think there are still plenty of donuts to be made,” he said.
That’s how a business keeps it a family affair.
As Sosland Publishing Company, publisher of Baking & Snack, gears up to celebrate 100 years of providing food industry professionals timely information, news and commentary, we will be publishing a series of articles across all our titles to celebrate the past, present and future of the people and industry that feeds the world.