6 Questions with ABA President Robb MacKie about the baking industry’s road ahead

Robb MacKie, American Bakers Association President. 

Robb MacKie, American Bakers Association President. 

Robb MacKie is the American Bakers Association president. Every day it’s his job to work closely with the association's members to grow and enhance the baking industry. It’s been his assignment and passion in a 22-year career at ABA. Even though MacKie has a deep rooted understanding of baking, he says he’s still learning every day.

In this six question series, MacKie shares his career journey, what inspires him, and tips for the future generation of American bakers.

1. How do you view your career journey at the American Bakers Association? Was there a specific turning point that put you on the path to where you are today?

As much as I would love to say my path to and with ABA was a straight line due to careful forethought and planning, that would be a complete lie. I had worked on Capitol Hill for over 6 years and then with 2 different associations representing the construction industry. I remember my predecessor at ABA, Kevin Burke approached me when he was leaving ABA and asked me to interview. I was very happy where I was, but agreed to interview with then ABA President Paul Abenante.

When I interviewed with Paul I had a long list of asks, but not what you might think. At that point in my life, I wanted to learn about the business side of an industry I admired and respected. I wanted to get to know the people, the business challenges, how to protect them from government overreach, and honestly find a professional home. I found all that and a whole lot more at ABA.

Paul never said no to my many crazy requests. I wanted to ride route trucks at 3 am; tour the customer market; observe labor negotiations; build a PAC; learn the business side of the association world. Paul may have laughed at me a few times, but he never told me no.

I don’t think there was one turning point per se, but an accumulation of experiences. Probably most important was aggressively seeking face time with key leaders in the industry. At every committee meeting or convention, I made a point to find one-on-one time, ask a ton of questions, and drill down on what was most important to the industry leaders

2. You became President of the American Bakers Association in 2006. What immediate changes did you make once you took the helm?

The importance of understanding the measurable ROI for members was driven home early in my tenure at ABA. As soon as I became President, I made a point to go out and visit as many members as possible in the first year or two. One of my first meetings was with then Kellogg’s President David MacKay. He respectfully grilled me for 30 minutes on what he was getting for his ABA dues. Fortunately, I could come up with enough quantifiable items to keep them in the organization. However, I quickly realized we had a long way to go to better explain the ROI of membership and to be honest, we are still constantly honing it to this day.

Another immediate action was to get to know our industry partners better and understand our combined resources to serve the baking industry. If ABA was going to refocus its efforts around our core advocacy and business networking mission, we wanted to engage those organizations to either take over what ABA wasn’t doing very well or partner to meet an important industry need.

3. What inspired the ABA/AIB/KSU partnership on the Bakery Process Kill Step Calculators used for FSMA preventive controls documentation?

This is the classic example of how industry organizations can collaborate for the betterment of the industry. ABA was very actively engaged in the legislative battle over the Food Safety Modernization Act that passed in 2010. We were able to mitigate several onerous provisions in the final bill including registration fees and application to the baking distribution system. One provision on which we were not successful was the requirement to scientifically validate the baking kill step for every product despite decades of reliance upon the baking kill step to eliminate potential pathogens.

As ABA switched to the FDA FSMA rule making process, our Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee began the laborious process of determining which of the 40-plus regulatory items most impacted the baking industry. Clearly the kill step validation was one. Under the leadership of then FTRAC Chairman Len Heflich and ABA’s Lee Sanders, the concept of an industry-wide approach rather than individual companies conducting their own validation was explored. The cost savings and risk avoidance for bakers was potentially significant.

Once a collective approach was agreed upon, AIB International and Kansas State University were natural partners. The bakers on FTRAC determined the practical protocol outcome, AIB provided incredible technological know-how and credibility, and KSU provided the secure laboratory and scientific clout. After a few fits and starts, we were able to collaborate to provide what has become a critically important tool to assist that the industry complies with FSMA in a cost effective and low-risk way. The combined investment of approximately $400,000 has saved each member of the industry at least $25,000 – $30,000 per product. The added bonus is FDA, who has been consulted regularly, holds our partnership up as a model for other industries to follow.

4. What else needs to be done to successfully restore the work force gap issues in the US market and what are ABA’s ongoing efforts?

The industry needs to take a sober look at it’s challenges as well as assets in retaining and recruiting talented individuals. We need to examine core production processes; scheduling; distribution systems; technology and determine what needs to go and what can be adjusted. We can’t shy away from asking the tough questions and developing innovative solutions.

The industry has been fortunate that the economic recovery has been slower than is traditional, but we are still experiencing shortages of skilled talent at all levels, particularly in certain highly technical positions. When the economy really heats up, that shortage could potentially be highly disruptive.

All that being said, the industry is not without considerable assets. We are a relatively stable manufacturing sector that has to be close to our customers and is insulated from many economic fluctuations that impact other manufacturing sectors. We have a well compensated workforce with a myriad of effective training programs. Between ABA, AIB and KSU, there is a network of multi-level training capabilities. We need to do a better job of integrating our training programs to create an industry career path that will help current and future employees.

Our biggest asset, however, is probably our most underutilized. We have a network of passionate bakers who are literally feeding the world nutritious and wholesome products the consumers want to eat. We need to connect all these assets and do a far better job of telling our story. All of the research I have seen highlights that millennials and Gen Z are highly motivated to work for companies that provide a bigger purpose and have strong values. Feeding the world seems like a pretty important purpose and a core value.

We also need a policy environment that will support the industry in meeting it’s current and future talent requirements. There are hundreds of federal and state training programs that are cumbersome and inefficient. In addition, the complexity of laws governing hours, wages, and benefits hinders companies from trying innovative work practices and offering tailored benefits to attract talent.

Lastly, and to highlight the elephant in the room, our country desperately needs to overhaul its immigration policies to supplement our skilled domestic workforce. Baking has historically been a haven for waves of skilled immigrants to start along the path of achieving the American dream. The ABA membership is testament to those success stories. Unfortunately, our immigration policies make it exceedingly difficult to attract those skilled immigrants and the current political environment is not conducive to rational discussion and serious policy making.

5. Robb, what would you say to the baking industry as your association enters this new chapter in history?

We need to challenge everything. We need to challenge the marketplace drivers, the “way we have always done things”, our communications and messaging, our teams, and including the industry associations. Change and disruption is all in and around the industry. What is different today from 22 years ago is that the pace of change has accelerated like never before. We need to challenge ourselves to adapt to the pace of change.

This means we need to innovate; continuously improving our value to our customers; be more aggressive about promoting our industry to customers and talented individuals; and keep looking as far ahead as we can. All this while staying true to our core mission and values. As daunting as all this may seem, it is the new normal and we need to embrace it.

Adapting to this new environment, especially when you look at how our industry identifies new and different pathways, is necessary to thrive and grow in a changing environment. ABA is going to redouble its efforts to bring together our entire value chain of bakers, suppliers, and customers and determine how we all create the best possible environment to grow the baking category. We’re utilizing a data-based and industry focused strategic planning process to uncover critical challenges and new opportunities to support our industry. Next April we’ll share ABA’s vision for how we’ll leverage all of our collective talent address industry challenges and support growth in the category.

6. Any tips for novice bakers out there who want to build their career in the baking industry?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, assistance or clarity. There are a wealth of opportunities and resources to grow skills, expand insights, and find a very rewarding life in and around baking. Don’t be afraid to engage and network. Baking is a calling built upon relationships. There are ABA NextGenBaker leaders who developed lifelong connections and friendships or AIB training classes who hold reunions, avail yourself of those opportunities.

Lastly, challenge us in the “old guard” to share our wisdom and experiences and provide you the opportunities we had as we were coming up. I have yet to meet a baker who wasn’t passionate about their occupation nor loved to tell their story. After you hear their stories, then go out and make your own.