King Arthur Baking Company co-CEO talks about firm’s longevity, adaptability, keys in a crisis
Colberg reflects on company’s journey, work on Boston Fed advisory council as term ends
Karen Colberg is co-CEO of King Arthur Baking Company, which is based in Norwich, Vermont, and has a history dating back to the American Revolution. Colberg was also a member of the New England Advisory Council at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Council members help shape policy by sharing their on-the-ground perspectives on regional economic conditions and trends.
Colberg recently completed her final year on the council, and Bostonfed.org interviewed her about her time on the NEAC and her experience leading a national brand while emerging from the pandemic.
Very few companies are 230-plus years old. Can you talk about the benefits and unique perspective that kind of longevity gives a business? Can you also address any challenges staying nimble and open to change?
Being in business for as long as we have, the company naturally has grown, thrived, and contracted more than once. What has been foundational and consistent is our North Star of doing business the right way. We manage the business with transparency and strive to ensure our employees understand how we are doing and their role in our performance.
As a result of being in business for so long and being 100%-employee-owned, we have many long-serving, dedicated employee-owners. Most of the time, that serves our company and culture quite well, but there are times when change can be hard. When the future is unknown and we have so much history to look back on to guide thinking, there are times when we have encouraged greater risk-taking for the sake of future growth, and that is not always comfortable for everyone. Our strong, collaborative, employee-owned culture is built on a foundation of trust and respect, and that enables us to navigate these and other challenges – all with an eye to the long-term health of the business.
What are some of the key ways you’ve had to adapt in recent years? What did you learn during those times?
The past three years of the pandemic have been like none other for everyone. At King Arthur Baking, our business grew significantly in a world where people were sheltering at home, and baking was a natural – and delicious – hobby. With the business growing at unprecedented rates and employees confronting personal challenges ranging from family care, personal wellness, and working differently, there were a few critical learnings that enabled us to manage through unimaginable times.
First, have a plan. While no one foresaw the pandemic, our employee-centric approach enabled us to quickly establish the rules, routines, and structure needed to keep everyone safe and the business operating.
Second, communicate clearly and often. We established weekly virtual town meetings to bring everyone together to share updates, answer questions, meet each other’s children and pets, and simply stay connected.
Third was focus, focus, focus. With supply chains constrained, we quickly prioritized where we would dedicate wheat and mill time in order to produce and deliver as much flour as we could. This meant saying no to some opportunities for the sake of larger ones.
Why do you think the New England Advisory Council is important? Is there anything about serving on the council that surprised you?
Data and analyses are incredibly important to informing the decisions made by the Fed, and the touch points and stories that the NEAC business leaders share provide important context to the aggregate trends.
I was not sure what to expect when first asked to serve on the council. It’s not too surprising, but there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the members. As soon as the conversations begin – questioning, answering, connecting – relationships form. I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity because of the people I have met and have been able to reach out to beyond the council meetings. I trust the connections will always be there, and I am grateful for that.
What made you confident Fed leadership was truly listening to your input?
I have to say that I was impressed by the questions that the Fed leadership brought to each meeting. The questions often brought forward prior comments, and to me that demonstrated deep listening and understanding.
Most of the council members you meet with represent different sectors, some vastly different from what King Arthur does. Did you find you still learned from each other?
Absolutely. While our businesses are different, in many ways, as leaders we share the challenges of managing through the concurrent economic, environmental, and organizational impacts. Hearing how others were working to motivate their teams was instructive.
What would your advice be to new members of the council?
Be open, listen, ask questions, and get to know your fellow members.