WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WEST VIRGINIA — Even as Bühler Ltd. becomes an ever more diverse business, the company continues to invest heavily in milling, said Stefan Scheiber, chief executive officer.

Scheiber sat down for an interview with Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, Oct. 7 at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, US.

In addition to describing the varied ways Bühler continues to nurture its milling business, Scheiber discussed Bühler’s long-term embrace of digitization and shared reflections on his 37-year professional journey, including 7 as CEO.

Among its multitude of businesses ranging from chocolate and coffee processing to die casting and thin-film vacuum coating technology, milling remains Bühler’s largest segment, Scheiber said. In its most recent year, milling generated about 700 million Swiss francs of revenue at the Uzwil, Switzerland-based company, just under a quarter of its 3 billion Swiss francs in total sales, he said.

Asked whether Bühler continues to deploy resources to strengthen its milling business, Scheiber said the company takes a multi-faceted approach to investing in milling.

“Market by market it is important to me that we are engaged with millers, that we are close to them, that we know the millers, that we are represented in the big milling countries of the world, and there are many,” he said. “We provide services, essential services, on top of what our sales consultants do.

“Customer intimacy is where it all starts. You can do many things wrong, but if you get that wrong, you create problems. That’s why I’m so happy we’ve had the opportunity to be part of NAMA for a long time. And in that sense, we have had good positioning in the US.”

At a more basic level, Bühler continues to invest in new milling technologies, Scheiber said.

“Because sometimes the belief is milling and particle size reduction has been there for hundreds of years,” he said. “Is there still something to be invented? Of course there is, and I think we can prove that. Sometimes you need to be able to disrupt your own technology, which we did with the E3 mill which we launched four  years ago — in the UK, Tampa and then followed by many other projects. It’s about new products and new ways to design plants.”

Beyond updating machine technology, Scheiber said Bühler has invested in ways to optimize processes for a wide range of raw materials that are processed by the company’s machines and technologies.

“We are investing more and more into the knowledge and skills around application of our plants, processes and machines,” he said. “We have built up application centers, research centers where we put our technology in and basically play with the machines with different raw materials, different end products. We do that in milling, chocolate, extrusion technology, baked goods, pasta.

“Raw materials available in the global markets are so different. Consumer trends and needs are so different. The machines are one thing, but the applications of those machines in the context of different products is very different. We are investing not just in resources in Uzwil but also in the United States and elsewhere.”

Exploring how different raw materials react and what end product differences result allows millers to make process adjustments, Scheiber said.

“Sometimes it is a different setting of the milling equipment and process,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more on the cleaning side, or the sifting side. Mixing, blending play an important role. This is not only about building machines, but very much also about process-technology-improvements. For this, Bühler has invested into food technology engineers in addition to our equipment engineers. Understanding technology-processes better does not mean we want to be competing against our customers. Much rather, we aim at understanding what they do in their processes much better, so we can improve our complete solutions.”

This work has evolved into the development of new technologies for flour-based end products, Scheiber said, citing biscuits, noodles and wafers as examples.

“Our work is such that we enhance the value chain from wheat, into flour into the different product sectors,” he said.

A final milling-related area Scheiber said Bühler is investing resources is in education and training. He noted that milling schools support the network of millers around the world and that this education is even more important after the coronavirus pandemic.

“The US and other markets have problems recruiting and retaining well-traded operators, so I think we have a role to play there as well,” he said. “All of that we do to support our customers.”

Bühler is committed to continued advances in incorporating digital solutions in milling and the other industries it serves, Scheiber said. At the same time, he noted that this work is anything but new. The first programmable controllers installed in mills date back about 50 years, to the 1970s.

In recent years, he said Bühler has made “huge steps” in making more use of production data from its customers to “run their mills even more efficiently,” he said.

“For instance, the most modern mill we have built, the E3 mill in the UK, measures 17,000 data points every five seconds,” Scheiber said. “This trend toward digitalization you can see in other industries as well. It’s not per se something extraordinary. Now you apply these things in modern food processing as well. As you grow these solutions, you have to have the electric engineers, the software programmers, the data science people, the IT protocol owners who say this is how we communicate with the cloud — it has to be safe, secure and has to deliver value for our customers. Over time we grew these muscles and we learned also through failures, and through these , we made it work successfully. That’s the very spirit of what Bühler has been doing over the last 160 years. It just so happens the world was a rather physical world in most of the history of our company. Now it has become digital as well.”

A native of Wil, Switzerland, a town of about 20,000 (as of 2020) just west of Uzwil, Scheiber has spent his entire career at Bühler, beginning in 1986 when he became what he described as a “management trainee in the lowest ranks.” He went to Africa with Bühler in 1988 and, after returning to Switzerland to complete his education, he returned to Bühler, first in post-Soviet Russia where he had multiple months’ long stints in various locations, including Siberia and central Asia. From there he spent two years in eastern Africa, and later another 4 years in South Africa, where he reported to René Steiner, who later headed Bühler’s North American business for many years. From Africa Scheiber had assignments of increasing responsibility in Germany and in Switzerland before he was promoted to Bühler’s executive board in Switzerland in 2005. He was named CEO of the Bühler Group in 2016.

Part of what drew Scheiber to Bühler was a determination to avoid what has long been one of the most popular career choices in Switzerland for ambitious young professionals: I absolutely didn’t want to work in the financial industry,” he said. “I wanted to work in a producing industry, where they produce real assets, tangible things.”

Over time, Scheiber said his appreciation for what Bühler was about deepened — that the company’s values aligned with his.

“The purpose of this family business has been consistent for a long time,” he said. “I could see they were walking the talk.”

Being respectful, the value of education and innovation and an appreciation for other cultures were among values Scheiber said he has witnessed consistently over the course of his career.

“I could see it by myself in all the functions I had in many different countries — I could see it was consistent and authentic,” he said. “That spirit of a family company appeals to me a lot.”

As his career progressed, he also gained a greater appreciation for the underlying importance of Bühler’s work, he said.

“Our customers feed the world,” Scheiber said. “That is a noble cause. As a young man, I didn’t know, but over time it became more important to me.”

The harsh realities of life he witnessed in Africa drove this realization home, the idea that Bühler’s role was to do more than “merely delivering financial results.”

“To see what good food does for a child, when the child then has the cognitive capabilities to learn, and when you learn you have the capability to have a better life,” he said. “This is something that is very important. Not just in Africa. In India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and in many other countries of the planet — our technologies are playing a role in that food that is so basic for people.”

Asked for important lessons he has learned over the course of his career, Scheiber said that the resilience Bühler has demonstrated by surviving as a business since 1860, in good times and bad, has been an important lesson.

“As a part of that organization, as a person you have to do the same thing,” he said. “You have to celebrate successes and remain humble at the same time. Humility in the face of success. You have to work through critical times, never give up and always find solutions That makes you stronger. These kinds of things formed me as a human being but also as a leader of the company.”