Sky is the limit

by Josh Sosland
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Under the leadership of Paul T. Maass, ConAgra Mills was at the forefront of the milling industry promoting the benefits of whole wheat flour.

With the promotion a year ago of Bill Stoufer as president of ConAgra Mills, passion for whole grains and its importance to ConAgra Foods and the milling industry has not diminished.

In an interview recently with Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain, at the ConAgra Foods headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., Stoufer expressed confidence that the heady growth rates of whole wheat flour sales would continue for the indefinite future. Even though whole wheat continues to represent a modest share of overall flour production, Stoufer foresees a time, not too far into the future, in which whole wheat flour achieves parity with white flour.

“The key to whole grain growth has been delivering functionality, taste and texture,” he said. “It’s products with our Ultragrain flour, but also products made with traditional whole wheat flour. Customers are increasingly interested in incorporating whole grains into their products and whole grain will continue its growth curve. It is foreseeable that whole wheat will have a 50% market share (versus the current share of 5%). You can make a very strong case for that. It’s not multiple generations until you get there. It’s the next 20 years.

“We’re beyond the point of perception that whole grains taste bad. Going forward, if you win the kids, you’ve won the entire race. You’ve won an entire generation. There is a lot of effort there, in lunch programs for example. All the things they are doing toward greater whole grains inclusion is exactly the right thing to do.”

‘DIFFERENT BALLGAME’

Like his predecessor, who was promoted to president of Commercial Foods at ConAgra Foods, Stoufer comes to his current position with long tenure in the company’s milling business. During this period, Stoufer said he has seen many changes in milling, overwhelmingly for the good. In particular, professionalism in flour milling has reached an entirely new level over the course of his career, he said.

“It’s a whole different ballgame from five years ago,” he said. “The market dynamics, sophistication, professionalism. The dialogue with customers is different. It’s better. It’s less transactional. We’re both fighting the same headwinds, and we have to find a way to win together.

“We discuss questions like ‘What are you doing with people?’, or ‘with transportation, with food safety? It’s a shared responsibility. It’s exciting. There always will be transactional business. But there is a shared understanding of mission. Take food safety. You can’t do it alone as a milling company, and our customers can’t do it alone as a bakery.”

Stoufer will mark his 21st anniversary with ConAgra Foods in January. His experience in the milling business has been quite varied, beginning with an assignment in the transportation department and then work with logistics. He said an ambition to advance in the company prompted his initial move outside of transportation.

“The gentleman in front of me running transportation was only a few years older than I was,” he said. “You are young and dumb, and so I asked, ‘What am I going to do with my career?’ I decided to try something different and jumped into sales. I began selling in Ohio and was ready to move there. But that was the year ConAgra Mills decided the market was shifting, and the customer wants you at your desk instead of shaking their hand. So I became the test pilot for our centralizing most of the sales staff right here in Omaha. I had success and worked my way up.”

After a stint at Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings and the now divested Gilroy Foods divisions of Commercial Foods, Stoufer returned to sales at ConAgra Mills, dividing overall sales responsibilities with Don Brown, vice-president of sales.

“Don and I split the sales staff,” he said. “He had national accounts, and I had regional sales people.”

When Maass was named general manager of ConAgra Mills in 2003, the division became a more focused business, Stoufer said. He said greater alignment was needed between sales and operations.

“We could sell something, but could we execute for the customer?” Stoufer said. “We could make something but could we sell it?

“I came out of sales to run supply chain management. It really came down to a question of, ‘How do we run our internal business better for our customers? Questions were centered not around running operations better, but running operations in a coordinated manner. There was give and take. Sometimes you have to do something for the company that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you can’t. It was about managing our capacity better, managing our selling better, managing a lot of things. Running this business more efficiently.

“Our customers ended up seeing a better ConAgra Mills. It was a testament to the work everyone did, the entire team.”

Whether by happenstance or design, the broad range of experiences in Stoufer’s career prepared him for his current assignment and also suited his character, he said.

“It was a lot of different roles and shaped how I think about things,” he said. “From a personality side, I’m a restless person. I enjoy a certain amount of change, thinking of better ways we can run our business or execute for our customer. That fit my role in supply chain and it fits today, because our environment is in such a period of change. How do we succeed for our customers in this environment? I love that as much as anything right now.”

EFFORTS TO CREATE VALUE

Stoufer was quick to draw a distinction between change for the sake of change, which he called counterproductive, and efforts to create value for customers.

As an example, he cited the company’s SafeGuard Ready-To-Eat flour, an integrated system of milling, heat treatment, storage and transportation aimed, according to ConAgra Mills, at “improving flour safety without sacrificing crucial flour functionality.”

“In instances where there may not be a validated process that reduces the microbial load, it’s a tremendous win for the customer, knowing that SafeGuard flour will provide their product with an extra layer of food safety,” Stoufer said.

The SafeGuard line and Ultragrain whole wheat flour hardly represent ConAgra Mills’ only efforts at innovation in milling. Stoufer was upbeat about prospects for Sustagrain, the company’s proprietary high-fiber waxy barley. Since its introduction in 2004, demand for Sustagrain has grown, albeit slowly, he said.

“You’re beginning to see people accepting natural sources of fiber, hot cereals continuing the trend of coming back to the American diet in the morning,” he said. “It’s the health and wellness platform. It’s available in different granulations. When you have high beta glucan, you have all kinds of heart health stories with barley. It was a product introduced probably before its time. Now it is finding its market. We’re getting requests for all kinds of applications to change the nutritional profile using all natural ingredients. It’s whole grains. Three times the fiber of oats. It’s experiencing great growth, principally in the arena of health and wellness foods — cereals, bars (less in bread).”

Longer term, Stoufer said, Sustagrain may find applications in bread, as much because of its strong water binding capabilities (as a shelf life extender) as for its fiber content.

Stoufer likewise is upbeat on the company’s line of Ancient Grains.

“Ancient Grains started as a line extension for flavor and texture,” he said. “But they also happen to be gluten-free. What’s been great about our Ancient Grains portfolio is that it fits in well with what we do with traditional whole grain, Ultragrain and Sustagrain.

“Specifically with gluten-free, consumers are getting a lot of starches and gums, which are nutritionally weak. We are delivering a whole grain solution to gluten-free.”

Incorporating Ancient Grains into mixes and other products has been a vehicle for sales growth, Stoufer said.

“It’s extremely difficult to just supply an ingredient and think people will use it correctly,” he said. “You have to go a few steps beyond that, to a point of, for lack of a better term, ‘Just add water.’ Working on gluten-free products is very difficult.

“With all the new products, you can’t create that product without understanding demand better, understanding risk, what consumer reactions will be. Can I make it? Will I need to change the flow of the mill? It really is a different environment.”

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