An expanded focus

by Melissa Alexander
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Rene Steiner embraces Buhler heritages of family and progress.

by L. Joshua Sosland

While in many ways the personification of the traditional, Swiss-born, long-time Buhler employee, Rene Steiner, president of Buhler, Inc., is anything but backward looking.

To the contrary, Steiner for many years has been involved in and supportive of a restructuring program launched by Buhler in 1997 aimed at positioning the company for future growth, even as it approaches the sesquicentennial celebration of its 1860 founding.

Steiner visited the offices of Sosland Publishing on Sept. 20 while in Kansas City, Missouri, for the annual meeting of the American Feed Industry Association. He has been president of Minneapolis-based Buhler, Inc., since July. With Magnus Baumann, director of grain processing at Buhler in Minneapolis, taking a leave of absence, Steiner will be assuming a more visible role in the company’s North American flour milling business.

While new to U.S. milling, the industry is hardly unfamiliar to Steiner, who holds degrees in engineering and business.

Reflective of the historical and continuing importance of flour milling to the company, Steiner has spent most of his career with Buhler in assignments directly related to this industry.

A native of Switzerland, Steiner is the third generation of his family to work for Buhler and has extremely high standards for what truly constitutes a "Buhler career."

"My grandfather worked for the company for 53 years, and I have two uncles who worked at the company 50 years each," he said.

When asked whether his father worked at the company Steiner smiled as he said that he worked there for "only" 20 years.

"Currently, I have a nephew at Buhler, so there are two members of our family at the company," Steiner said. "Buhler is a family business. It is family-owned, of course, but I mean something else. There are many families, many more than mine alone, in which many generations of family members work or have worked for the company."

Steiner said young people in the area around Buhler AG’s Uzwil, Switzerland headquarters are drawn to the company, in part, for the opportunity to work abroad. In his case, Steiner worked in South Africa on two different occasions, including a brief stay in 1973 when he met his wife. In the years that followed he traveled widely, working on various milling and other Buhler projects around the world.

For what has been his longest professional stint, Steiner returned to South Africa in 1979 and stayed until 1997.

His responsibilities included milling and, eventually, oversight of the entire Buhler business. The South African business grew steadily while Steiner was there, to nearly SF50 million in annual sales by 1997.

How first double-high was sold
While in South Africa, Steiner earned the distinction of selling the first double-high rollstand ever, arguably the most important milling technology innovation of the last half century. The machine, which now has been installed in mills around the world, had only been developed to the point of a prototype in Switzerland when Steiner was bidding on a project to build a new three-unit mill in Senegal.

The bidding was highly competitive, and Steiner asked Buhler executives in Switzerland whether the company had any newly developed equipment that could provide him with the competitive edge he needed to secure the contract.

Development of the double-high rollstand was a "top secret" project that was still undergoing testing at Buhler, and company executives were reticent about offering the new rollstands even though they were confident that the technology would prove successful.

Steiner was instructed that he could offer the double-high rollstands for sale in the Senegal mill but would not be allowed to describe the new innovation to the customer, at all.

"That restriction made things difficult, of course, but I had a good relationship with this customer," Steiner recalled. "I prepared an extensive written offer for a conventional mill, and then in a cover letter I described how the cost could be reduced significantly if new cutting-edge Buhler technology were incorporated. I didn’t specify the technology, but the buyer was intrigued."

He was so intrigued that he agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement and bought the system sight unseen on the strength of his relationship with Buhler and the company’s reputation for reliability, Steiner said. After the papers were signed, Steiner accompanied the customer to Switzerland for a demonstration.

Into divisional role in Uzwil
With the 1997 corporate reorganization, Steiner was transferred to Switzerland to the Buhler division responsible for chocolate, pasta and extrusion.

While the original restructuring focused Buhler organizationally on its four divisions (now three), the company later began to explore ways to apply various corporate functions, such as marketing and sales, across all divisions.

Toward that end, Steiner spent several years in the Buhler International Sales and Service organization before moving to Minneapolis in April 2005.

While he said the international structure for service and sales has enhanced the manner in which Buhler meets customer needs, the approach does not fully recognize significant differences between one marketplace and another.

"Our intention in North America is to develop the region in a way that offers specific solutions to the needs of the region’s customers," he said. "In North America, we have a very strong position in die casting, with particularly strong demand from the automotive business. We have strength in chocolate and pasta as well.

"Flour milling is very important in the United States market and has been for many years. On the other hand, feed milling, oilseed processing, extrusion and grain handling are far smaller businesses for Buhler than is the case in many other parts of the world. These are areas of our business that need to be developed."

Marrying products to customer needs
"I’m confident that we have the technology, the products to succeed and grow in this market," Steiner said. "But at the end of the day it will be our ability to find solutions for our customers and support them in their market that will be important."

Steiner said he will begin to delve deeper into the North American milling market in the weeks and months ahead to explore customers’ needs.

"As a general objective, we need mills that produce flour of consistent quality without requiring too knowledgeable a workforce," he said. "We need mills that are automated but simple to operate.

"Efficiency has become so much more important with the rising cost of energy. In milling, 70% to 80% of the cost of flour production is the raw materials. The next largest cost is power, and we need to help customers lower this cost.

"We have good people in the United States, focused on customer service. We have a solid engineering team, well trained. If we do understand our customers’ needs, we have the capacity to grow our business. It will not happen overnight, but as we help our customers more, it will be win-win."

(Josh Sosland is the editor of Milling & Baking News, World Grain’s sister publication.)