The Currency
3:11 pm
Wed June 25, 2014

The Currency: Long Time CEO Of King Arthur Flour Steps Down

The Currency is our ongoing look at economic and business news in New Hampshire. 

Headlines: "Statistical Stalemate" In Housing Market, Optimism On Turkey Trade Mission, And Standex Makes A $20 Million Bet On Fried Chicken

As the New Hampshire business delegation to Turkey packs its bags and moves from Istanbul to Ankara, Governor Maggie Hassan is calling the trade mission a success so far.  “After we did a lot of press on Monday, we actually had some additional businesses reach out to the delegation on Tuesday,” she says.

Turkish executives are also interested in New Hampshire’s infrastructure. Economic Development Commissioner Jeffrey Rose is on the trip.  He says the Turks consider the state’s highway system, deep water port, and Pease Development Authority  assets to help them access markets in the Northeastern U-S and Canada. 

And the New Hampshire Association of Realtors is calling a “statistical stalemate” for the housing market.  The group says from January to May home sales were down nearly eight-percent from the same time last year.  But buyers ponied up about eight-percent more for those houses.  So far, they say the market is “relatively balanced” for buyers and sellers.  

A Salem company is placing a big bet on fried chicken.  Standex International makes a patchwork of stuff ranging from engraving and electronics to food service equipment.  Now, they’re branching out into deep-fat fryers.  They bought San Antonio-based Ultrafryer for $20 million.  Even though the company only made $15 million last year.  Standex says it wants to expand more into the fast food market.

King Arthur CEO Abdicates

Just over the border from Hanover sits America’s oldest flour company.  

King Arthur Flour Sign
Detail of vintage King Arthur Flour sign on display in Camelot.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont has been in business for more than 200 years.  And CEO Steve Voigt has been at the helm for a slice of that time.  Over Voigt’s 15-year reign, King Arthur has switched from family-ownership to employee-owned under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).  It’s also become a B-Corporation—an elite business graded on sustainability, transparency, and how it treats its workers.

And King Arthur HQ itself has expanded dramatically, adding a bakery and café, culinary classrooms, and a bigger store in the large timber building they’ve dubbed “Camelot.”  I caught up with Voigt at this local hangout-slash-pilgrimage site.

“Well, it really shows the power of collaboration, and the power of teamwork.  Because what you see here is more than what any one person could do," Voigt says, looking around the building's bustling hub.  

"It’s really the very diverse skills of master bakers, of people who are incredibly good at dealing with customers, long lines of customers queuing up for breakfast treats and coffee.  For people who are wonderful at merchandising items.  So, bringing together the very diverse set of skills all around a shared love of baking is what’s made King Arthur great.  And I simply have conducted the team that has led that,” he says.

Q: How has King Arthur Flour changed since you took over as CEO?

A: Well, King Arthur has grown dramatically since the late ‘90s.  And we have become a more national and even international brand.  That’s based on our product, based on our service, but also based on the way we’ve run our business.  So we’re setting up and giving the world a case study if you will, of how businesses can be run in the future. 

Q: What was the biggest challenge of making these huge transitions?

A: I think there’s a bias to grow fast here in this country.  And while we’ve grown quite well, we’ve specifically not grown as fast as the opportunity might have suggested we could.  We did that because we didn’t want to lose the connection with the customer along the way.

Q: Is there anything you wish you would’ve done differently in your time here?

A: No.  I’m very pleased with what’s been done here.  I feel like I’ve given a lot.  And now I’m very much looking forward to taking some time off.  And then I’ll be figuring out what I want to take on next.  It’s probably going to be in the area of employee ownership and B-Corps.  I think these are models which are…they’ve been around for a couple years.  Or longer, in the case of E-SOP.  But they haven’t been taken up and embraced by the country as a whole.  And I think we’re going to see a lot more adoption.

Q: Of everything that’s happened over your tenure, what are you most proud of?

A: I’m most proud of the fact that I am now handing over the running of this company to an incredibly talented team of individuals.  And that’s not just the four on the leadership team, that’s really the whole E-SOP and everybody who’s in it.  We have come a really long way here, and it’s because of them.

King Arthur Bakery
Visitors can watch King Arthur's bakers at work.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

That leadership team Voigt mentioned is more important here than at most companies.  King Arthur won’t get another CEO--at least, that’s the plan.  Instead, four executives will co-lead the company as something of a…shall we say, Round Table

As CFO Ralph Carlton explains it, “The model’s a continuation of how we’ve worked together over many years.  The company, while it had a CEO, was run day-to-day by what we call a ‘Strategy Team,’ which included the four of us, plus Steve Voigt, so this is in many ways a continuance of that governance model,” he says.

It all sounds very…Vermont-y.  But in a world where companies have to make quicker decisions and be more nimble than ever, doesn’t this consensus model make things clunkier than they have to be?

“I wouldn’t say it’s a drawback," Carlton says.  "But it puts a real challenge on us to pay attention to the rapidity with which we’re making decisions.  Again, we have a lot of experience doing this.  And when you come down to it, it’s really a small percentage of the decisions that really require the group to take time and deliberate.”

When Voigt steps down at the end of the month, he says he hopes the “Arthurian values” in place right now will be sustainable over the next couple hundred years.

Check here again next Wednesday for The Currency, a weekly look at business and economic news in New Hampshire.