For some people in the business world, “virtual” signals a temporary compromise made necessary by the COVID-19 crisis. They feel virtual communications and operations need to last only until companies and society can return to “normal,” in-person activities.
Kerwin Brown doesn’t see it that way. The President and CEO of BEMA — Bakery Equipment Manufacturers and Allieds — says virtual strategies provide new opportunities for baking industry companies to enhance their business models. He eyes a future in which virtual strategies will meld with physical ones to enhance relationships, manufacturing, education and other activities.
“We have to figure out as a baking world how to integrate the virtual world so much better than we ever have in the past, and service and support the baking community 24 hours a day, no matter where you are in the world,” he said.
Brown made his remarks on the American Bakers Association podcast Bake to the Future. He participated in a wide-ranging interview and discussion led by Robb MacKie, ABA President and CEO.
Advancing Through Virtual Efforts
BEMA is an international, not-for-profit trade association representing leading bakery and food suppliers. Its members, challenged by extreme disruption from the pandemic, have needed to emphasize flexibility. Even routine activities such as customer equipment installations ran the risk of being disrupted by safety requirements at plants.
In the face of hurdles, BEMA members quickly developed virtual strategies to serve the industry, Brown said.
Examples included virtual sales calls, virtual service and virtual FATs (factory acceptance tests).
BEMA member Reading Bakery Systems conducted webinars to compensate for the absence of in-person meetings. The webinars drew wide audiences — including both existing and new customers, Brown said. BEMA itself launched virtual programming, including a virtual convention.
MacKie emphasized that “BEMA members have been very nimble and flexible during the pandemic in adapting their service and sales models” to the new needs.
Looking Ahead To IBIE In 2022
Given the pandemic’s current pressure on in-person gatherings, it feels comforting to imagine the year 2022. In September of that year, the next edition of IBIE — International Baking Industry Exposition — will be held in Las Vegas. IBIE, held every three years, is co-owned by ABA and BEMA, in partnership with the Retail Bakers of America. MacKie asked Brown to imagine what kinds of innovations might be showcased at the 2022 gathering.
“I would answer that by coming back to the discussion of virtual,” Brown said. “For example, we're going to have all kinds of augmented reality and virtual reality options over the next few years for the industry, and you're going to see those showcased.”
However, it may be the opportunity to gather in person as an industry that will be most welcome, he added.
"Our show is such a community show,” he said. “People have been going to our show for decades. It is a chance for everybody to come together, see old friends, connect, innovate, and talk about the future. So I’m really looking forward to having our community back together again.” In addition to hosting the established who’s who of the baking industry, IBIE is the ideal place for new and emerging industry professionals to experience unrivaled opportunities for education, networking and innovation.
Giving Back To Communities And The Industry
The pandemic led BEMA and its members to support a range of important causes to help communities and the industry.
BEMA’s innovative “We Knead You” campaign was aimed at supporting front-line workers, the hard-hit QSR sector, and hunger relief efforts. For every BEMA member company that purchased meals from local QSR/fast casual restaurants for donation to essential workers, BEMA donated $500 to Feeding America. Some $17,000 in funds were raised for that organization.
“Members got really creative in their efforts, and donated food to police, firefighters, teachers, hospitals, cancer centers and other facilities,” Brown said. “Frontline workers were so appreciative.”
Another creative effort was a virtual telethon to benefit The Women’s Bakery, a Rwanda-based organization that owns, operates and franchises bakeries in East Africa. The group’s focus is to create employment for women and sell nutritious, affordable breads. BEMA’s program raised about $25,000 for that entity.
Relaying Optimism For The Future
ABA Board Chair Brad Alexander recently communicated “a huge thank you” to BEMA members for their crucial roles in supplying the baking industry during the crisis, MacKie noted.
Even in the face of challenges, bakers and producers are investing for the future. They are spending capex dollars to grow their businesses, new automation and improving efficiencies and BEMA members stand alongside in partnership supporting those efforts. Brown said that some 80% of members expressed optimism about the future of their business in a recent BEMA survey.
This upbeat stance coincides with the widespread consumer embrace of baked goods during the global crisis.
“I feel like this entire country, if not the world, has rediscovered sandwiches and baked goods,” Brown said. “People are wanting great taste and comfort foods. They're turning to bread and snacks and sweet goods while they're home. And I love that.”