WASHINGTON – Eric Dell, the new president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association (ABA), wants bakers to know that he is ready to go to work for them.
“I will work tirelessly for them,” he said. “I will listen, and we are going to build an organization that they can be proud of, that will make a difference for their business.”
That’s not to say the ABA isn’t already an organization that is making a difference and representing bakers well in Washington. In fact, that’s what drew Mr. Dell to the leadership role in the first place — the core competency that already exists at the ABA.
“It’s good to come into a team that can just run,” Mr. Dell said. “The staff have long tenure, and they know the industry so well, which is really helpful.”
Mr. Dell hopes to build upon this firm foundation and expertise to take the ABA to the next level and establish the organization as a leader in solving some of the biggest issues facing the food industry today. He believes in a proactive approach with an emphasis on advocacy that positions the industry as a problem-solver, members who want to partner with government agencies to find solutions.
“Mr. Dell is an energetic, dynamic and politically savvy leader who exudes passion for his work and his family,” said Cordia Harrington, ABA’s board chair and founder and CEO of Crown Bakeries, Brentwood, Tenn.
Mr. Dell brings to the position a wealth of experience both in politics and representing industry on Capitol Hill. His political life began when he was 14 years old and began putting up signs for the governor’s race in his native South Carolina.
“It just took off from there,” he said. “It was exciting to me, and I really enjoy the political world and making a difference.”
In college, Mr. Dell worked at the state level and on governor’s races. He served as chief of staff and counsel to Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. He also was a practicing attorney and law clerk to the late South Carolina Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook.
After working with Mr. Wilson, Mr. Dell made the pivot to associations, where he joined the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA). He served the convenience services/vending industry in that capacity for 10 years, ending his tenure there as executive vice president. During his time at NAMA, Mr. Dell built the association’s advocacy program, forged industry partnerships and revitalized the industry trade show, which are all passions he intends to focus on at the ABA. He perceives his role in associations similar to that of politics. Regardless of if they are citizens in a district or members of the baking industry, Mr. Dell sees himself as a voice in Washington for those he represents.
“We’re representing the members of an industry; their opinion is what matters,” he said. “We have to listen to those members and advocate on their behalf.”
Listening and learning are where Mr. Dell intends to spend most of his energy in these first days at the ABA. The top two things keeping bakers up at night, he hears, are labor and supply chain challenges, which he intends to address with policymakers. He also has been impressed with how informed ABA members are about the issues.
“People stay in this industry a long time, and their knowledge base about the issues and challenges is tremendous,” he said.
Armed with the knowledge gained from his listening tour, Mr. Dell intends to build upon ABA’s strong advocacy tradition, something he feels passionate about and spearheaded at NAMA.
“I’m also asking members about what issues their customers and consumers are pushing them on, such as sustainability,” Mr. Dell said. “The heart-warming thing is that a lot of the industry is ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. We need to gather that information and educate policymakers that we’re already doing those things and work with advocacy organizations to be part of the solution on those issues.”
This collaborative approach to advocacy — being part of the solution — is something Mr. Dell learned from his years of experience on the Hill. Working in Washington for any amount of time, Mr. Dell said he learned quickly that in order to get things done, he had to be willing to work with both sides of the aisle and recognize that after any election majorities and minorities shift. At the end of the day, it’s about relationships, which are built from consistently showing up.
“It’s important for people to be involved despite the environment, regardless of who is in power,” Mr. Dell explained. “Parties and control can change, but the agencies that make the decisions don’t change often. You have to build up those relationships and keep them strong, which requires showing up consistently with a consistent message.”
He pointed to the effectiveness of consistent fly-ins over time to keep those relationships strong, something he intends to expand upon at the ABA.
“We built our fly-in at NAMA from 25 to 30 board members to nearly 300 before COVID,” he said. “It took us five years for people to know us on the Hill, but it’s important to plow that ground and keep coming back year after year because things don’t happen overnight.”
Mr. Dell’s collaborative approach to advocacy paid off during his tenure at NAMA when the Obama administration mandated that vending machines disclose calories for each product at the point of purchase. The mandate required signage on the vending machine that listed the calorie count for each product offered in the machine, but this requirement did not take into account the day-to-day routine of filling machines nor the physical limitations of including such information on the vending machines. NAMA worked with the Food and Drug Administration to allow calorie counts to be labeled on front-of-pack instead of on the machine, eliminating liability and operational concerns while still honoring the intent of the mandate.
“We were able to go to the FDA, describe how the industry works, and we started the conversation with the fact that we wanted to disclose calories to consumers,” Mr. Dell explained. “When tackling something, instead of poking someone in the eye, coming with a solution gets you much further. We were able to get the mandate written in such a way that made more sense for the manufacturers. We came up with a common-sense solution that helped a lot of businesses, particularly small businesses who wouldn’t have been able to comply with the original mandate.”
In addition to learning about the wholesale baking industry and increasing its advocacy work in Washington, Mr. Dell will be preparing for strategic planning and working with the board and membership to develop a vision for the future. He also will collaborate with the ABA staff to develop core values and a more inclusive work culture.
“We’re going to challenge the staff to help create those core values so we have a stronger team and people enjoying coming to work and working together,” he said. “Not that they don’t already, but let’s establish those core values together as a staff.”
Mr. Dell also expressed excitement to work with BEMA on the International Baking Industry Exposition. Near the end of his tenure at NAMA, Mr. Dell worked with the team to expand the scope of the industry’s trade show to in turn strengthen the industry itself.
Mr. Dell noted that throughout the interview process for the position, he sensed the ABA board of directors was looking for someone with vision who could take the ABA to the next level.
“We have tremendous food equity issues, accessibility of food, sustainability, all of these forward-leaning issues that consumers and customers are demanding the industry be out in front of,” he said. “It’s really about thinking outside of the box and getting proactive and getting people excited about promoting the industry and bringing people together to solve big challenges.”