Paul Abenante ‘Unplugged’
By Dan Malovany
On the eve of his retirement, the outspoken president and CEO of the American Bakers Association speaks candidly as he reflects on his career, politics and the future of the baking industry.
After 35 years of working in the nation’s Capitol and serving nearly 20 years as president and CEO of the American Bakers Association (ABA), Paul Abenante is finally getting out of what he calls “the Washington rat race.”
The 58-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., notes that he has given the baking industry his all, and the time is right for both him and his wife of 35 years, Evelyn, to thoroughly enjoy life while they’re still young.
“I felt that the industry and the ABA were in a situation where I would be leaving at the top of my game,” he explains.
Specifically, the baking industry rebounded nicely from the low-carb craze, which devastated sales of baked goods last year. Recognizing that the baking industry needed to respond to its critics, Abenante and the ABA board last year spearheaded the birth of the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF), the public relations organization that is promoting the positive benefits of bread and other grain-based foods to consumers, the media and retail channels.
This year’s successful “Bread. It’s Essential” media campaign in New York and Washington, D.C., for example, helped fuel an unprecedented amount of positive news about baked goods and sparked a turnaround in sales. The fact that the federal government issued new dietary guidelines that emphasized whole grains didn’t hurt either.
“The Grain Foods Foundation should never be taken for granted,” Abenante says. “Now that they built it, [the baking industry] has to nurture it and expand it. Look at all of the success it has had in the last year. The industry is now getting its legs back. It’s starting to enrich itself.”
Effective January 1, the new head of the association will be Robb MacKie, ABA’s vice president of government relations since 1995.
“The ABA is in solid hands. You have to recognize that we have tremendous dedicated talent and professionalism on the staff,” Abenante says.
The challenges facing the ABA and the baking industry over the next few years will be tougher than those in the past, Abenante suggests. Food companies constantly are re-evaluating their investment, time and participation in associations to ensure they are getting enough bang for their bucks. These associations, he adds, must react more quickly to more complicated issues and defend their positions with more money. ABA will need to invest in technology and upgrade its communications.
“Everyone is going to have to be a lot more responsive in a rapid sense,” he explains. “The marketplace and the membership needs are changing on a daily basis. Issues used to appear monthly or yearly. Now it’s hour by hour and minute by minute, and with consolidation, there are fewer players and suppliers and retailers out there to take on these issues.”
Abenante, however, is not heading out to the sunset entirely, so to speak. Although he will make his home in the appropriately named Sunset, S.C., he will serve as a consultant for the ABA during the next 18 months, attending industry functions and assisting the organization on several ad-hoc projects.
The More Things Change…
Over the years, the most important lesson he has learned from working in Washington, D.C., is to never go into battle unless the troops are ready to fight.
“Unless you have strong, broad-based support behind whatever you’re advocating, don’t even take that first step forward,” he says. “When you confront your adversaries, you’ve got to feel confident that you can confront the challenges knowing that you have an industry supporting you 100%.”
Since joining the ABA 25 years ago as director of industrial relations, Abenante has been helping the baking industry battle issues such as nutrition labeling, sugar subsidies, Farm Bills, energy costs and environmental burdens, which never seem to go away. Yes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Abenante says “it never ceases to amaze me” how government can make something as simple as producing baked goods so complicated.
He reflects on how the baking industry, the retail environment and the ABA have changed in a variety of ways. Mergers and acquisitions have shrunk the number of players in a grain-based food industry that continues to diversify. Back in the days when bakers ran baking companies, many ABA members were family-owned. Today, chief executives are often interchangeable from one industry to another. Although some wholesale baking companies are still run by bakers, the lack of continuity at others makes it difficult for associations such as ABA to know how to serve their membership bases effectively.
Likewise, the retail landscape has diversified. While the supermarket industry has consolidated, consumers are shopping at a variety of channels, ranging from mass merchandisers and club stores to dollar stores, convenience stores and even department stores. Such a segmented marketplace creates enormous challenges for direct-store delivery operations, he says.
ABA has been forced to change as well to keep up with an evolving baking industry and a constantly changing business environment. When Abenante was named president in 1986, the organization had lost its focus and needed to “right the ship,” he recalls. Within the Beltway, the association had been tagged with the stereotype that all bakers were only interested in cheap wheat. The industry needed to take a broader interest in the Farm Bill. Moreover, political contributions were not backed by a clear political agenda. As a result, the industry couldn’t be taken seriously. It had no political goodwill.
“Our priorities were clearly out of whack,” Abenante recalls.
It took time, but the ABA eventually began to prove itself with regulators, with political appointees and on Capitol Hill. The subsequent challenge involved educating ABA’s membership on the value of the association to their bottom lines, whether it involved using sound science to eliminate costly regulations or working in partnership with an agency to minimize the impact of nutritional labeling. At the same time, ABA worked to recruit a staff that could effectively execute its agenda.
Moreover, the association was broadening its membership base. In an era of continued consolidation, ABA began analyzing the needs of the grain-based foods industry and uncovered the common denominators that impacted its increasingly diversified membership from a public affairs and legislative business perspective. Out of this, the organization redefined and rebuilt its issue-based committee system that exists today.
Highlights and Lowlights
Perhaps fittingly, one of the highlights of Abenante’s career came in October 1991 when the ABA staff brought its board of directors to the White House for a personal tour by former President George H.W. Bush. Nine months in the making, the visit began in Oval Office, after which Bush took the group upstairs for an insider’s view of the White House’s living quarters. The directors then had their photos taken with the president.
Another highlight was the ABA’s 100th Anniversary celebration at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1997. A year in the planning, the event featured a black-tie banquet and a video depicting the ABA over the last century. It was topped by a private fireworks display for attendees, including past chairmen, who provided a link to the association’s historical roots.
The “darkest day” for Abenante came during 9/11 when the baking industry had been gathered in Las Vegas for the 2001 International Baking Industry Exposition. His daughter worked in the World Trade Center that had been attacked by terrorists, and Abenente and his wife didn’t find out whether or not she was safe for hours.
“When we saw the building falling down, we thought the worst until we heard from her,” he remembers. “The industry had gone from tremendous celebration and excitement and enthusiasm on the first day of the show, and then [the attack] had to happen. It was the lowest day for the United States and the baking industry as well. It was a day I’ll never forget.”
Abenante recalls driving to Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport that day to see if any aircrafts were flying out. All he saw was a ghost town.
“It was a surreal experience to see the airport totally desolate,” he says.
Reflecting on the past, Abenante says he specifically owes “a tremendous amount of gratitude” to Jack Lewis, Jr., president of Evansville, Ind.-based Lewis Bros. Bakeries. He was chairman in 1986 and gave Abenante the opportunity to become ABA president.
“Our chairmen have been the most impressive men I have been around,” Abenante says. “Many of them have become the closest of friends, and they and their wives have treated me and my wife like family.”
For Abenante, perhaps the least fun part of the job involved soliciting members for money. The best parts of the job were socializing with industry leaders.
“It’s those relationships and close friendships that make a difference in life and in the job, and that’s what ABA’s all about,” he explains. “It became part of our life and our family. We lived the industry.” SF&WB
Before ABA: Mr. Abenante Goes to Washington
At a time when it was fashionable to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” Paul Abenante first came to the Washington, D.C., area in July 1970 to work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
After a considerable amount of training, he initially served as an intelligence officer assigned to the 24/7 nerve center for analyzing information flowing in from the field and into the agency.
“It was at the height of college unrest, riots and protests and the Vietnam War,” Abenante recalls. “It was not the most popular place to go to work at that particular time in history.”
Two years later, Abenante was promoted and assigned to work in the Nixon-era White House. There, he became part of the national security staff in the White House situation room from 1972 through August 1974.
“That was, it could be argued, one of the most tumultuous times in history,” he says. “We had the Yom Kippur war, new relationships with China, and Vietnam was hot and heavy along with the Paris Peace talks to end the war. Then there was Watergate.
“There was no connection. It was just coincidence,” he adds, laughing.
With the Vietnam War winding down, the CIA became so overmanned that Abenante thought it would be better to leave the agency for the private sector, where career opportunities might be better. It was “culture shock” to leave the agency, but Abenante says it was the best for him in the long run.
“Even though my prospects were good at the agency, the CIA wasn’t a pleasant place to be in post-Vietnam,” he says. “Too many people were walking the hallways.”
Abenante’s career in the private sector started with National Savings & Loan Association. As staff vice president, he learned the ropes on the legislative and lobbying processes and handled administration efforts for the organization. He stayed there until joining the American Bakers Association (ABA) in 1980.
A 1969 graduate of Southern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree from the school of government, Abenante is a lifelong Republican. Growing up, his family had ties to the New York City Republican Party and served on Nelson Rockefeller’s New York gubernatorial campaign, with Abenante handing out flyers as a youth.
Out of the Office
Not even Paul Abenante is all business all of the time. Here are some fun aspects that you may or may not know about the retiring president and CEO of the American Bakers Association (ABA).
Family: Wife Evelyn, married in 1970. Son Ryan. Daughter Kimberly. Son-in-law Raf. Grandson Tyler is 18 months.
Family History: Abenante’s parents were from Sicily and Naples. His wife’s parents were from Ireland and Norway.
Hobbies: Visiting impressionist art galleries with his wife. Traveling, especially in Italy. Playing golf. “My skill doesn’t equal my passion, but I enjoy the atmosphere and the camaraderie of the game.”
Lowest Golf Round: He shot an 80. “I missed a short putt for a 79.”
Hole-in-One: At the Lowes Island Club in Virginia. Hole No. 15. Par 3. 189 yards. “I didn’t see it go into the cup, but my son saw it. I thought he was pulling my leg,” he says. “But don’t tell Mike Marcucci [Alpha Baking’s CE0 and big-time golfer] that I got one because he’ll want me to start giving him strokes.”
Favorite Baked Goods: Italian artisan breads. Fresh-sliced white bread. “I know that sounds politically correct, but it’s the truth.”
Desserts: Ice cream by far.
Favorite Actors: Spencer Tracy and Sean Connery.
Retiring To: Sunset, S.C.
Retirement Plans: To teach at the collegiate level. To consult for the baking industry. “Someday, I would like to learn how to fly fish.”