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At King Arthur Flour, a Turnover: Longtime CEO Steve Voigt Hands Off Leadership Role to Team

Sunday, June 01, 2014
Norwich — When King Arthur Flour’s new four-person leadership team takes over at the end of the month, the transition from a single executive chief is expected to be smooth.

“We’ve been preparing for this for some time, and King Arthur Flour is not just about one person,” said Steve Voigt, who is leaving the firm June 30 after serving as chief executive officer for the last 15 years.

Under Voigt’s leadership, the 224-year-old company has seen significant expansion and growth. King Arthur Flour has gone from a tightly controlled family corporation to become 100 percent employee-owned under an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, and a certified beneficial corporation by changing its bylaws to reflect a commitment to shareholders, business partners, the community and the environment. In 2012, the company added a Vermont Benefit Corporation designation for its commitment to social responsibility.

In addition, King Arthur Flour has grown from roughly 60 employees to 320 and has sales of more than $100 million. It’s products are sold in all 50 states and Canada in grocery stores and through the company’s catalog and website worldwide. And company officials say King Arthur Flour has the No. 1 selling flour in the country in every category, except bleached, which it doesn’t sell.

Voigt will be succeeded by a management team consisting of Karen Colberg, Suzanne McDowell, Michael Bittel and Ralph Carlton. Colberg is the chief marketing officer, McDowell oversees human resources, Bittel is in charge of manufacturing and wholesale and Carlton is the chief financial officer and oversees information technology.

Although there were no names attached, the succession was part of a plan for all senior positions that King Arthur Flour put in place in 2008, long before any of the leadership team was considering retirement, according to a case study of the company published by Praxis Consulting. As a result of the plan, the company has improved communication and coordination among senior team members and managers, the Praxis report says.

“We’ve been working as group for years and making decisions. It’s been a very transparent transition to the new leadership,” Carlton said last week. “Nothing is really going to change. The governance process will remain the same.”

Under the ESOP structure, the employees are shareholders and are kept informed and have a say in company decisions, Bittel said. “We have a guidance team, but (King Arthur Flour) employees really guide us.”

The ESOP works as a retirement plan for employees, Voigt said. Like other employees before him, when Voigt departs at the end of the month, the plan will purchase his stock, and the funds will be rolled into another retirement plan, such as a 401(k), Carlton said. “It’s a sound financial plan that is well funded,” governed much like pension plans.

“Before we had the ESOP, we’d say to employees, ‘Work like you own the company.’ Now, they do own the company, and they’re working like owners,” Voigt said.

Businessman Henry Wood started the business that became King Arthur Flour in 1790 in Boston, importing and distributing English-milled flour. The company grew and reorganized, and in 1895, the name was changed to Sands, Taylor and Wood Co., reflecting the names of owners Orin Sands, Mark Taylor and George Wood.

In 1896, George Wood attended a performance of the musical King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which inspired the name for the new brand of premium flour that the company introduced at the Boston Food Fair that year. The brand was successful, and the name stuck.

The company remained in the hands of the Sands family for several generations. President Frank E. Sands II, a Dartmouth College graduate, and his wife, Brinna Sands, then refocused the business on selling its core product, flour, and in 1978 moved Sands, Taylor & Wood from Massachusetts to Norwich.

The company started the employee-ownership process in 1996, and the name was changed to King Arthur Flour Co., reflecting its principal brand. In 2004, the company became 100 percent employee owned.

During the last five years, despite the worst downturn since the Great Depression, an obesity epidemic and a move toward gluten-free eating, more people in the United States have turned to home baking, and gross sales at King Arthur Flour have soared, rising from $69.1 million in 2008 to more than $100 million last year.

Since 2012, the company has completed a $10 million expansion of its bakery, internationally known education center, store and cafe, and a $4 million expansion of its food manufacturing facility.

Even so, Voigt’s tenure has not been entirely smooth. The financial situation at the company became a bit lumpy in 2002, when King Arthur Flour saw a decade of double-digit sales growth drop to 3 percent as wheat prices hit record highs and catalog sales plummeted. As a result, the company the following year was forced to lay off 26 workers and to trim the hours of many of the 131 remaining staff members.

The drop in revenue was an early test for the company’s employee stock ownership plan, but the company had a financial crisis contingency plan in place, according to an article published by the National Center for Employee Ownership, a nonprofit research organization, as a case study of the company’s ESOP model.

“The company held town meetings every month to share financials. The information connected to the contingency plan, so KAF employees knew the implications of the current state of the company, helping to boost morale by stopping rumors before they started,” the article says.

“The years of training and open-book management gave KAF a resource that other companies don’t have: informed employees. The company used the monthly town meetings to ask employees for their cost-savings ideas,” which were implemented along with revenue-generating measures that helped the bottom line.

Prior to joining King Arthur Flour, Voigt raised private equity and venture capital and was a business consultant with McKinsey & Co. He graduated in 1986 from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and has an undergraduate degree from Colgate University. One of his first business ventures in the world of baking was supporting his wife, Robin, in her efforts to found and later sell Robin’s Homemade Breads of Greenwich, Conn.

Voigt started in 1992 at King Arthur Flour as vice president of finance. He became chief operating officer six years later before ascending to the CEO position a year later.

Since 2008, King Arthur Flour has been preparing its leaders for taking on new roles and challenges through leadership development programs, said Tom Payne, the company’s marketing director.

“We’ve had all of our senior and middle managers go through a leadership development program in waves, and we’re in the middle of a second type of managerial training now. Our approach is to make sure that in the case of someone’s departure, we are prepared to move forward without an interruption in our strategies and tactics. No one person is so critical that we cannot achieve our goals. We seek to have redundancy in skills, abilities, network connections, etc., to allow us these sorts of smooth transitions,” he said in an email on Friday.

“We have a culture of ownership that Steve created, and employees are not afraid to make suggestions, and we try to head down that path,” said Colberg, who has been with King Arthur Flour since 2005 and oversees the company’s marketing and direct sales. She also has degrees from Colgate and Tuck, and worked in marketing with The Gap for eight years prior to King Arthur Flour.

Carlton joined King Arthur Flour last year and oversees all the financial functions of the company. Previously, he held similar positions with Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs and smaller entrepreneurial firms. He’s a graduate of Dartmouth and Tuck.

McDowell has been with the company since 2000 and is responsible for training, organizational development, workplace mediation and other personnel issues. She’s a graduate of the University of Utah.

Bittel started in 1999 and oversees the flour division, focusing sales to retailers and bakeries. He is in charge of purchasing the company’s wheat supplies and working with the company’s farmers, millers and customers nationwide. He is past chairman of the Whole Grain Council and lives in New York.

The transition to the new management team will be seamless, and the company will continue over the next 200 years to fulfill its mission to responsibly produce high-quality products, Voigt said.

“We have great products, and there’s a broad awareness of our brand and a strong opportunity to expand to new markets, particularly in the West,” he said.

“King Arthur Flour is viewed as a real leader in what we’ve done through being socially and environmentally responsible. We’re just going to keep trying to make it better.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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