End of An Era
by Dan Malovany
When I first started covering the baking industry some 19 years ago, I really annoyed Paul Abenante on a regular basis. I know you won’t believe me, but I didn’t do it intentionally, well, most of the time. Stupid ol’ me just didn’t understand the nuances of the baking industry, and Abenante, as president and CEO of the American Bakers Association, took every opportunity he could to remind me of that.
Over the years, the haranguing came less often as I slowly recognized what he and the ABA were trying to accomplish. But don’t let me tell you what he meant to the industry. I asked some of his previous bosses, or former ABA chairmen, to share their thoughts or favorite memories as he readies to enter retirement.
Let’s start with George Deese, president and CEO of Flowers Foods, who notes that he has “the greatest admiration for Paul.”
“I’ve had the privilege to watch Paul grow in his job at ABA as I grew into mine with Flowers. Starting from a staff position, Paul took a struggling ABA and shaped it into what it is today—a strong organization with great staff in Washington that has earned the baking industry respect on Capitol Hill. That says volumes about his leadership ability,” he explains.
Deese adds that Abenante was at the very center of the effort to create the Grain Foods Foundation, which he called one of the highlights of Abenante’s career. He pulled together bakers and millers to support the public relations group to promote baked goods to the media, educators and consumers and will provide “great benefit to our industry for years to come.”
“On a personal note,” he adds, “I have to confess that Paul has always tried to get me on the golf course. He never succeeded, but I was successful in getting him to go quail hunting. I always said that he would laugh if he saw me golf. I can say that I not only laughed—but was a bit fearful—when I saw him take aim with a shot gun for the first time.”
Chuck Sullivan, former chairman and CEO of Interstate Bakeries Corp., recalls sitting in on the ABA search committee for a new president back in the mid-1980s. What was his reaction after the Abenante interview? “This guy’s good, and I’ll tell you why he’s good. He recognizes that the association is in a headlock with Washington, and the issues that are going to affect the industry will emanate from D.C.,” Sullivan recalls.
Abenante, he says, took the association in a different direction from being less of a social group to being more politically active and engaged in legislative and regulatory affairs.
“He said, ‘We’re going to have our hands full in the future with legislation, labeling and other issues. Our association needs to be strong.’ Those were prophetic words because that’s how it turned out,” Sullivan says.
Abenante accompanied Sullivan on numerous occasions on the Hill to lobby for and against legislation that was impacting the industry’s bottom line.
“I was always impressed by the fact that Paul was greeted with open arms by both sides,” Sullivan says. “We could get in to see Democrats as well as Republicans. That’s not easy to do in that town because our money principally went to conservative Republicans. Of course, once in a while, we had to hold our noses.”
Pat Callaghan, senior vice president, general manager, meals & accompaniment of Pepperidge Farm, adds that the industry will miss Abenante in more ways than one.
“He’s a skilled lobbyist, he’s a brilliant tactician and he’s a fierce competitor,” Callaghan says. “He came across as a leader in the industry and was able to build consensus. Basically, he took this industry and made it a power in Washington.”
He recalls how Abenante and Robb MacKie, incoming ABA president, beat the odds and succeeded in defeating ergonomics legislation in 2000 that would have seriously handcuffed the industry to operate.
On the other hand, Callaghan also remembers how the two butted heads when he was ABA chairman.
“I’m an Irish guy who grew up in Boston, and he’s an Italian who grew up in New York. We had many spirited debates. We had more spirited conversations and constructive tense moments than I can count. We came at things from different ways, but we ended up in the same spot. Maybe it’s because we’re so passionate and spirited that we had this great relationship,” Callaghan says.
Although the ABA is a very conservative group, Mike Marcucci, chief executive at Alpha Baking Co., was one of the few chairmen whose political beliefs tend to drive from the middle to the left hand side of the road. As a result, Abenante took great lengths to prepare Marcucci to do things the “right” way, even going so far as to write his chairman’s remarks.
Every once in a while, however, Marcucci tended to stray from the script and go off in his own direction.
“Where I thought of myself as being witty and free-thinking, Paul thought of me as a loose cannon,” he recalls. “I think the best example was when we had former President Bush as our speaker at the BreadPAC dinner in 1995. As the incoming chairman of the ABA, I got to sit next to the former president at dinner.
“I’ll never forget glancing across the table at Paul and the expression on his face as he pictured his whole career passing in front of his eyes, and I hadn’t said anything yet,” he says. “I would like to think that night alone contributed to a good portion of Paul’s receding hairline.”
Thanks Mike, there goes the phone again.
Good luck, Paul.