Eric Dell became President and CEO of the American Bakers Association at the start of January 2023. In this Q&A with Eric, he outlines his background, vision for the association, and plans for his early days in the role.
Q: Welcome to ABA, and thanks for participating in this interview. First things first, and there are no wrong answers: What is your favorite baked good?
A: I would say a glazed donut. I prefer a yeast donut, but I've never been known to turn down any donut.
Q: Mental note has been made. Staying on the food topic, can you tell us about the association - NAMA but not the Millers' - where you previously worked?
A: Sure. I'm coming to ABA with a background in food and beverage. My former employer is NAMA, the National Automatic Merchandising Association, where I was Executive Vice President. NAMA represents the vending and convenience services industry. Many of the baking members at NAMA are also members of ABA. Plus, many advocacy and government affairs issues are the same. Both are similar size associations with roughly the same size staff. So, it's just a good fit.
Q: What about your journey prior to NAMA? Let's go way back and learn more about your 'origin story.'
A: I was raised in Ridgeland, a small town in rural South Carolina. While I was in high school, my dad was a part owner of a convenience store. I worked in the kitchen, behind the register and anywhere else I was needed at the store. I clearly remember waking up around 3 am during the summer and being picked up by a co-worker to go to work. One of my jobs was rolling out and baking big trays of biscuits!
I received both my undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Carolina. I was a practicing attorney for a few years as well as law clerk to the late South Carolina Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook. Following that, I managed two Congressional campaigns and served as a chief of staff in the South Carolina State Senate before coming to Washington and serving two stints as Chief of Staff and Counsel to Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC).
I met my wife in DC at a University of South Carolina event (she's also from SC), and we were married in 2009. We have two young boys, six and nine years old, and they're just awesome. Family's very important to me. We love doing outdoor activities, especially with the kids.
Q: Now that you are at ABA, what's your overall vision for the association?
A: ABA needs to be a solution provider to issues that the baking industry is challenged with, including labor, sustainability, and supply chain issues. Whatever the issues are, we should always try to be out in front and play offense.
ABA is a great organization. We just need to take it to the next level, just like people have to do with their own businesses. It's about working together as a team and really using the talents of everyone on the team to bring value to our members.
Q: You mentioned the importance of ABA as a solution provider. Is there an example of this from your previous role that you might bring to ABA?
A: In my most recent job I worked in the area of public health, being a solution provider for those who don’t have easy access to better-for-you snacks and healthier products. There are opportunities that the baker industry can lead on to be a solution provider in this area as well.
Q: You've been very involved in association advocacy with the government. What is your perspective on advocacy and how it should be prioritized at ABA?
A: Sometimes people's eyes glaze over when they hear the word "advocacy" because it seems like this distant, mysterious, and complicated concept. It’s not – at least not for Members of ABA. The thing to remember about advocacy, government affairs, whatever you want to call it – it all starts and ends with what our Members are experiencing on the ground. We at ABA amplify those stories to decision-makers in DC, state and local levels. We work day in and day out cultivating important relationships so policymakers always know who the bakers are.
Members of Congress, lawmakers, and regulators are just like us, regular people – except they're not experts in our industry. We must educate them on how the baking business works. Make it simple for them, and then they can understand our challenges. And on the flip side, we at ABA make it simple for our Members to be involved in our advocacy efforts and understand how government works.
I think that's one of the most valuable benefits a trade association can provide to their members, protecting their businesses from government overreach.
Q: How will you spend your early days at ABA?
A: I really want to listen and learn, and I'll be doing a lot of that. I'll be traveling across the country meeting with members and prospective members to learn from them and explain our value proposition.
I'm looking forward to the ABA Convention in March. It will be a great place for me to meet the industry leaders in one place. And it's great timing because it's only about three months after my start.
Q: Speaking of the ABA Convention, do you have a message for those who will be attending?
A: I want to listen to you and learn from you. So please come up to me and introduce yourself and let's get to know each other.