Flour milling "all about managing change"

by Emily Wilson
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In the milling industry, even as everything changes, some things never change. The key is managing a facility or operation through that change. That was the message delivered by Robert G. Reid, vice-president of operations, The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, Ohio, U.S., to the 2001 annual meeting of the Association of Operative Millers, held May 19-22, at Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.

As part of his presentation, "The Discipline of Flour Milling," Reid conjured images of the 21st century flour miller, one who has changed from a highly labor-intensive employee to an individual with more finely honed skills spanning all levels of the milling process.

"Milling encompasses a number of processes that require a variety of skills as a professional miller," Reid said. "It (milling) is just like paint — if you don’t do a good job of preparation or use poor quality paint, it doesn’t make any difference how good of painter you are, you will not get satisfactory results.

"Well, in milling it’s the same way. If you don’t keep your mill properly maintained and do a good job of wheat selection and preparation, it doesn’t make any difference how good a miller you are, you will not get good results."


Mill control, work ethics, social attitude, customer expectations and specifications, wheat crops and milling technology and machinery are just a few of the areas that have evolved in the milling industry over the past several years.

According to Reid, the area that has changed the most is in mill control. Mills that were once run from a central location and operated as part of a series of belts and line shifts are now controlled, in some cases, through a modem at the head miller’s home, he said. Blending operations also have been simplified in much the same manner.

And at the same time that mill control has improved, the demands from customers to see improvements in service, quality and uniformity have grown.

In line with the changes in mill control, competitive pressure and consolidation have played an instrumental role in the maturation of the flour milling industry, Reid said.

"Milling has always been competitive, but it has definitely become more so in the last ten years in milling construction and numerous expansions," Reid said. He added that milling companies must constantly be aware that one bad business decision can cost the company a valued customer.

Throw in the changes that transpire each season with a new wheat crop and new advancements in technology and it is easy to see that today’s miller is faced with challenges unforeseen in years past, he said.


Even as everything changes, Reid stressed that some things, principally those issues that concern interaction with customers, never change.

"Trust must be earned," Reid explained. "You do not merit nor receive anyone’s trust by just showing up. You have to earn it by being trustworthy and trusting others. This is true for the people who work for you and for those who work with you and your customers.

"You can never breach that trust. You will find that people have very long memories."

He continued, "A reputation can take a lifetime to earn but you can lose it in a day. This is similar to trust but extends beyond the corporate level. A company with a good reputation spends a great deal of time and energy over the years to earn that reputation. The reality is that you can lose it in a heartbeat if you have a serious mistake by any one of a number of people — from the order desk to the truck driver."

Another factor that never changes is that the quality of work in the mill is often dictated by the quality of work of the leader, or plant manager, he said. According to Reid, a plant manager who is satisfied with or tolerates mediocre work from himself can expect to see those same attributes in his mill employees.

Along these same lines, Reid mentioned that it is important to remember that it takes a team effort to run a mill and continual improvement is vital to keep from losing ground. "If you are not in a mode of continuous improvement, making your operation more efficient, then you are being left behind," he said.

He continued, "Millers are conservative by nature and reluctant to change. We develop loyalty to what worked in the past, an aversion to what did not and have a hard time accepting the reality that things do change. We all have to keep an open mind and work attitude that there will be new ideas and new ways of doing things."

Eric Schroeder is an associate editor with Milling & Baking News, World Grain’s sister publication.