While the company’s large number of flour mills represents a point of difference from its competitors, the top executives of Ardent Mills said its value proposition extends far beyond prodigious size.
In an interview with Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain, Dan Dye, chief executive officer, and Bill Stoufer, chief operating officer, said the commitment to ingredient and end product innovation stands out in the industry.
Developing new milled products that have names like Ultragrain, Sustagrain and GrainWise served as a major area of focus at ConAgra Mills and Horizon Milling. Stoufer observed that innovation is no less important at Ardent Mills.
“Our focus will always be on core white flour,” he said. “It’s the essence of what we do every day, and we want to do that for our customers better than anyone else in the industry. But we continue to make investments around whole grains, ancient grains and specialty grains. We see opportunities in our organic and sprouted capability. We are always looking for what’s next and providing choice.”
The potential at Ardent Mills specifically for organic flour and flour milled from sprouted wheat is considerable, Dye added.
“Organic is something the customer is asking for, and we are reaching a point of finding a way to manage the supply chain with the wheat,” he said. “It’s about consumer demand and finding the right balance. If you look at the Ardent Mills network of facilities, the relationship we have with growers, both directly and through our owners, we have a unique opportunity to put those pieces together.
“Sprouted has a lot of potential. It provides not only a healthy benefit overall but other things that are exciting about the entire sprouted area. And we’re seeing some good traction. The key will be meeting the market need to get the product to the customer. I think Ardent Mills has a unique position to do that.”
Achieving scale in the production of sprouted wheat has been a challenge, but technological innovations allowing for economically efficient production of sprouted wheat may be forthcoming, Dye said.
“We feel we are a long way down that path,” he said. “There is still a lot to do. We think there is real upside in this market.”
Stoufer said ancient grains remain an area of innovation and excitement for Ardent Mills.
“People are looking for texture and taste,” he said. “They want something more than white flour or a whole grain wheat flour. Customers are looking for ways to attract the consumer with a ‘wow’ effect. You can do that with ancient grains. We have the capabilities.”
Product innovation emphasized
While proud of its vast network of flour mills and its specialty ingredients, the Ardent Mills executives said what truly sets the company apart is its ability to assist customers looking for help with product innovation. Dye said the company has a unique array of resources that offer bakers and other flour users meaningful benefits as they look for ways to develop new products.
“The combination of traditional white flour with whole grain flour along with specialty products can really help the customer create a dynamic offering,” he said. “And then using tools like the mobile innovation center and some other tools around innovation really has been a highlight the first year as well. The sales team has been able to leverage these tools to go out and say, ‘Here is what Ardent Mills can do for you.’ Or, ‘How can we serve you?’ — really work together in partnership. Listening to the customer and acting as a partner is something our sales team does well. Ardent Mills has the resources our customers are looking for. Our functional knowledge across many areas, including risk management, operations, technical solutions’ culinary and supply chain are being utilized by the customer to deliver a better end-to-end experience.”
Ardent Mills has promoted its Mobile Innovation Center (called “the MIC”) as “driving innovation to the customer.” Housed in a specially designed tractor trailer that features a kitchen/lab/culinary center, meeting space and other resources, the MIC has been driven to trade shows and directly to customers.
“The Mobile Innovation Center is unique and is a great example of thinking about the business differently,” Dye said. “It gives customers at their doorstep or at a show a tangible, hands-on experience in doing innovation together. We have a chef who does a great job of tying in different culinary themes. We first introduced it in New Orleans where we were making po’ boys and different New Orleans-themed specialties. We use it to do unique things so you can, say, taste a sprouted wheat bagel. Or you can taste a product made from organic flour, or an Ultragrain product that is different. You are doing that innovation together right there.”
The MIC and the specialty ingredients represent steps in the sequence between exploration or “ideation” and the ultimate introduction of a new product, Dye said. The company’s Innovative Bakery Resources (IBR) facility near Portland, Oregon, U.S., and ultimately the Ardent Mills Innovation Center under construction in Denver will be key elements as well.
“Being able to work with the customer in that way is something that differentiates us as Ardent Mills,” he said. “From the MIC we can do follow up with our Innovative Bakery Resources, a bakery itself where we do test runs or bake the bread. Having a bakery as Ardent Mills is pretty unique. Between the Mobile Innovation Center and the bakery you can bring practical innovations to life. I think that helps build that partnership and helps us do more for that customer and helps us tell the story of the great products we have and how those really look, taste and feel.”
From a practical perspective, Stoufer said the resources help customers save perhaps the most precious commodity of all — time.
He said, “Flip the innovation process on its head and ask, ‘Why does it take months and months and months to innovate? Let’s blow that paradigm up. Let’s take innovation to the customer. Let’s take the customer to Denver when we get done with Ardent Mills Innovation Center here. Let’s bring it to life in limited quantities with IBR so we can do market testing. We can do that in weeks if not days, instead of months or years. When you think about consumer tastes shifting so fast, you can’t take a year to get to market. How do we help our customers change the paradigm to let’s go from idea to market in a matter of weeks?
“We’re in a unique positon to be able to do that with the unique capabilities. We’re committed to that type of speed. Yeah, we’re big, but we need to be nimble.”
In December, these Ardent Mills’ customer solutions resources will expand further with the opening of a culinary center at the company’s Denver headquarters. Dye said the MIC, IBR and the Ardent Mills Innovation Center all will complement one another.
“So you can take an idea that comes from the customer at the MIC, do more testing at the headquarters’ innovation center here in Denver and then run test batches in the bakery near Portland, as Bill said, literally in weeks,” Dye said.
“It will offer a full kitchen culinary experience,” Stoufer said of the Ardent Mills Innovation Center to be completed later this year. “You’ll see wheat come in, do a full battery of testing and create great products at the end. It will complement the MIC and the customer.”
Josh Sosland is editor of Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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