KANSAS CITY — The baking industry is well positioned to leverage its scale to encourage suppliers, including packaging suppliers, to become leaders in sustainability, said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association.
In an interview ahead of his impending departure from ABA, Mr. MacKie highlighted sustainability as one of three major issues posing challenges to the baking industry right now. The interview was conducted Nov. 3 at the Kansas City offices of Sosland Publishing Co., parent company of Milling & Baking News. He said the challenges facing baking require sober self-reflection by the ABA and its member companies.
“The No. 1 issue is still workforce — attracting and retaining,” he said. “We’ve put out a ton of resources to help — research, training tools, communications and career center.”
He said the topic was top of mind among participants at the NextGen Baker Leadership Forum during IBIE 2022 in Las Vegas.
“Ryals (McMullian of Flowers Foods, Inc.) talked about it,” he said. “Tyson (Yu of Aspire Bakeries) talked about it. We’ve got to fix some issues in our own house in terms of hours, working conditions. We need to be very creative. That will not happen overnight. I do think automation, innovation, processes are going to play a big role in this. It is going to take some time. “
Supply chain, a second issue highlighted by Mr. MacKie, increasingly is shifting from a question of supply availability to one of commodity volatility, he said.
“I think there will be more concern going forward about the ingredients we use as an industry and ensuring that there is a profitable, sustainable agricultural market,” he said. “Without the wheat growers being successful, then ultimately the bakers and the consumers are going to be subjected to a whole lot of price volatility. So, that probably needs a realistic conversation on technology. The industry’s attitude toward the wheat supply probably has been one of the biggest changes in my time at ABA. It used to be price, price, price … quality. I think the understanding and awareness of wheat and other ingredients and how important it is to have stability there, even if it means a slightly higher price point.”
Speaking of sustainability, Mr. MacKie highlighted what he views as worrisome developments overseas regarding packaging.
“Watching what is going on in Europe with single-use packaging — that is going to come here,” he said. “We’re already seeing some signs in some states with producer responsibility legislation. They are determined to either make those bread bags recyclable or compostable. Right now it is showing up in the form of user fees. It varies by item and state, but it is like a tax, supposed to be supporting the recycling system. That model is starting to crop up in states in the US. But I think it’s a bigger issue the industry needs to step out and get ahead of this. This industry globally has a big presence. Think of all the packaging we use. … How can we leverage that for innovation? It isn’t going to happen overnight. But wouldn’t it be great if you could come up with a food safe bag that was 100% compostable? I’m not a scientist, but there are really smart people who could figure that out. That would really proactively position the industry in the eyes of the consumer. On the board there is a willingness to take this issue up. Ten years ago that may not have been the case.”
Mr. MacKie has led the ABA for nearly 17 years and has been with the organization since 1995. While he has lived in or near the Washington metropolitan area since his high school days, Mr. MacKie didn’t grow up around the nation’s capital. In fact, he didn’t grow up in the mainland United States.
“My father was career army,” he said. “In the early 1960s, he was stationed at a base outside of Paris, France. That’s where I was born. We moved all over the world.”
Mr. MacKie’s sister was born in Vienna, and he recalls a 2.5-year stint in Moscow near the peak of the Cold War around the time he was a first grader.
“Moscow left me with an overwhelming impression of how grey and dismal everything was,” he said. “Goods would come in from Helsinki. I remember that our phones were tapped, our apartments were bugged. We had a one-month leave one summer, and we went to Copenhagen. The first day when we got there, my mother went to a farmers’ market and bought every different kind of produce they had. We went to a park, spread out a blanket and gorged on all this bounty we didn’t get in Moscow. We are so fortunate and blessed in the United States.”
Mr. MacKie attended college at Frostburg State University, a school that is part of the University of Maryland system, located in the city of Frostburg in north central Maryland. He studied political science and government with the intent to pursue a career running political campaigns.
It wasn’t until the summer before his senior year when he landed an internship on Capitol Hill in the office of Representative Marjorie Holt of Maryland that he realized he wanted to work in Washington on policy development, constituent service and the other work of congressional staffers, not campaigns.
After sending out hundreds of resumes following his 1985 college graduation, Mr. MacKie was hired by Representative James Kolbe of Arizona, where he spent more than six years focusing on issues including health care, indigenous peoples affairs, science and technology.
After he married, Mr. MacKie moved to the association world, which he said offered better work/life balance and remuneration sufficient to support a family. He spent two years as assistant director of government relations for the American Subcontractors Association, a small organization that allowed him to “test drive this whole association thing,” Mr. MacKie said. That was followed with the Associated General Contractors of America, a group with a staff of more than 200.
At the subcontractors group, Mr. MacKie had a wide range of assignments, from lobbying and oversight of committees to working on the association’s newsletter. By contrast, at the general contractors group his work was limited almost exclusively to lobbying on labor management issues.
While satisfied with his work in the contracting industry, Mr. MacKie decided to respond to a suggestion from a friend at the ABA that he apply to fill an opening as vice president of government relations.
“I wasn’t especially interested, but a mid-sized association was appealing as was the opportunity to really get to know an industry,” he said.
Toward the end of the interview process, Mr. MacKie was one of two finalists. The process culminated with an interview by ABA president Paul Abenante over a meal.
“The other finalist was a good friend, still is,” he said. “I definitely was no more qualified than him, and sometime after I was hired, I asked Paul, ‘Why did I get the job instead of my friend?’ He responded, ‘You ate from the bread basket. He didn’t.”
Mr. MacKie credited Mr. Abenante for helping him bridge the very different worlds of government in Washington and businesses in the hinterlands. Before joining the ABA, Mr. Abenante had spent time at the National Savings and Loan Association.
“I learned so much from Paul,” he said. “Having been in the business world for so long, he really knew how to connect with business professionals. That really just reinforced for me the importance of understanding what the business motivations are and how do we come alongside on the policy front. Philosophically, I’ve always been aligned with our members — pro-business, entrepreneurial. It was a really good fit.”
Mr. MacKie succeeded Mr. Abenante at the helm of the ABA in January 2006. Reflecting on the work the ABA has done over the course of his career, Mr. MacKie said the organization’s activities are not always “sexy,” but they are very important to the group’s membership. He described one of his fondest memories the so-called “Band of Bakers” march on Washington in 2008 amid surging grains prices.
“We had almost 100 people there,” he said. “One of my favorite moments is we were sitting in the Capitol, and the CEO of the largest baking company in the United States was sitting next to a retail baker sitting in their chef’s smock. And we had all the suppliers represented. We had the entire spectrum of baking represented. And it wasn’t just that they showed up. We got things done, around acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program and other issues. What was particularly satisfying was how strong our media presence was. How important that was, not just in terms of getting our policy objectives, but our members customers when they talked about their input costs with their customers.
“Bakers told me, ‘I was just with customer X to talk about their pricing. They saw your interview, and when I went in to discuss pricing, the ground was much more fertile to get the job done.’”
Of the group’s more recent activities, Mr. MacKie expressed pride in the ABA’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic, including helping tamp down public fears there would not be enough bread and working with the governor of Ohio’s office when truck stops in the state were being closed down, imperiling the transportation of bread in the state.
“We also had bakers call and say ‘My delivery folks are delivering during peak shopping hours, potentially exposing themselves and shoppers — is there anything you can do about it?’” he said. “Because of the relationships we had, I was able to get on the phone with Leslie Sarasin who runs FMI and Greg Ferrara from National Grocers Association and said, ‘Can you send out communications to your members to shift delivery windows to off-peak times for the benefit of your customers and our drivers?’ They did it first thing the next morning. It was that kind of stuff. Is it big picture sexy? No, but it’s really, really important.”
Mr. MacKie cited the 2017 merger of the ABA and the Biscuit and Cracker Manufacturers’ Association as a pivotal development for the grain-based foods industry.
“Bringing together two very storied and strong organizations under ABA really helped to strengthen the industry while conserving precious industry resources,” he said. “With very similar cultures, ABA and B&CMA presented very complementary value propositions to serve the baking industry.”
It’s likely no greater transformation occurred during Mr. MacKie’s tenure than the changes that have taken place at the baking industry’s signature event — IBIE. He had attended three Baking Expos before he became president, beginning with 1997.
“It was an impressive show, don’t get me wrong, but it was very much an equipment trade show,” he said. “You came, you met with your equipment suppliers. We were still in the four-year cycle then.”
Just before his retirement, Mr. Abenante encouraged Mr. MacKie to “really dig in and understand IBIE.”
Mr. MacKie continued, “As I dug in, it just became really apparent that for us to be successful, we needed a strong, vibrant and growing trade show. At that point it was chugging along, maybe in a slight downward path.”
Mr. MacKie said he became president only a few months after Kerwin Brown took charge at BEMA, which partners with the ABA in producing IBIE every three years.
“One of my first trips was to Kansas City (where BEMA is based), and I spent a ton of time with Kerwin,” he said. “I found a very willing and eager partner who totally understood. His experience at Shick Tube-Veyor, what is now Shick Esteve, he understood it in a way I couldn’t understand. Then, what we did, we agreed we would put together for the first time in IBIE’s history a strategic planning session, well ahead of the show so we could map out not the next show, but the next 10 years.”
What resulted was a focus on education, broadening the supplier base and international.
“None of this was rocket science but it was vitally important,” he said. “And not accepting that we were like in years past, fighting over a shrinking pie. It was about growing the pie so the industry benefits.”
He said there was an entire strategy around building out the education programming, which has expanded dramatically over the last several IBIE cycles. On international, IBIE has partnered with iba to mutually promote, and he and Mr. Brown traveled the globe meeting with baking groups in many countries. Partnering with retail bakers has brought in baking celebrities, which Mr. MacKie said has added a new level of buzz.
“You want the experience to be fun and enjoyable” he said.
Mr. MacKie credited the IBIE committee and the event’s professional partners for the changes that were planned and executed. Similarly, he expressed great pride in the team of professionals at the ABA.
“I think we’ve created a culture where people feel they can bring forward new ideas as long as it helps to serve the industry,” Mr. MacKie said. “The opportunity to work alongside Lee Sanders and watching how she gets things done in Washington, and so many others on the staff, I have been so blessed. We have the privilege to wake up every day to help serve this industry. Have we hit every pitch out of the park? Of course not, but we get back in the game swinging and hitting every day.”