Josh Sosland, PortraitJosh Sosland, editor of Milling & Baking News

KANSAS CITY – For all there was to celebrate at the successful and well attended IBIE 2022, the absence of the longtime industry leader R. Jack Lewis Jr. was notable.

The chairman of Lewis Bakeries, Inc., Evansville, Ind., Mr. Lewis died Sept. 13 just days before IBIE. A fixture at industry events for decades, Mr. Lewis played a central role in reshaping IBIE and was a model of dedicated and effective industry leadership over the course of a career that spanned nearly seven decades.

Named to the Baking Hall of Fame in 2010, Mr. Lewis stands out within this august group in ways that demonstrate his unique combination of personal and intellectual qualities. He is the only baking industry leader to serve two terms as chairman of the American Bakers Association, and he was chairman of the International Baking Industry Exposition twice.

Soft spoken, Mr. Lewis found himself in positions of responsibility at a pivotal moment for the baking industry and did not shrink from addressing needed changes. He led the ABA in the mid-1980s at a time the group decided a leadership change was required to shore up the ABA’s organizational effectiveness and to step up the political engagement of the association and its members. After what one observer called “a couple of years of grumbling” among ABA membership, it was Mr. Lewis who, in consultation with the executive committee, decided “the time had come for change” and handled the transition discreetly and effectively.

His modest manner put those around him at ease while camouflaging an intensely cerebral nature. Mr. Lewis was deeply thoughtful about the baking business, the people in it and life in general. Mr. Lewis was remembered by those who worked with him as fair minded and insightful, someone who was sympathetic to those who worked hard but also able as someone “who could see through people” while refraining from speaking ill of others.

These qualities allowed him to also help pave the way for restructuring the relationship of the ABA and BEMA at a time when BEMA was coming into its own as an organization but had what many of the allied group’s members believed was too subordinate a role in oversight and ownership of Baking Expo. He worked toward a solution that was inclusive and fair, paving the way for a more harmonious relationship between the groups while allowing both organizations to benefit as IBIE thrived.

Supportive of finding ways to enhance consumer perception of grain-based foods, Mr. Lewis was a pragmatist.

“We need to look from a realistic standpoint at what the possibilities are of reaching the original goal of promoting wheat foods to the consumer,” he said in a 1985 interview.

Even as he devoted himself to industry affairs, Mr. Lewis was deeply involved in the family business he led beginning in 1977. Over his career, Lewis Bakeries’ annual sales grew from about $1 million per year to more than a quarter billion. His oversight of the business ranged from participating in key ingredient purchasing solutions to scoping out the latest innovations at each IBIE.

Indeed, it was only the COVID pandemic that in 2020 interrupted a career-long routine of going into the company’s baking plants each day. In a 2021 interview, Mr. Lewis said he missed the routine but recognized “stepping away” was helpful to members of the next generation as they honed their leadership skills.

In an interview with the ABA around the same time, Mr. Lewis reflected on what a career in baking requires of and offers aspiring industry professionals.

“Be ready to work your butt off,” he said. “The baking business is a tough business. Always has been and always will be. But there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had if you’re willing to put your mind and your body into it.”

Simple wisdom from a go-to leader who will be sorely missed. MBN