For most in the Australian baking industry, Tony Smith needs no introduction. As the Executive Officer of the Baking Association of Australia (BAA), Tony has played an instrumental role in the creation of the national body and continues to live and breathe for the industry—from advocacy and guiding young apprentices towards a career in baking to organising many of the incredible industry events and competitions at state and national levels.
How did you get involved in the Australian baking industry?
I originally came from the hospitality and hotel industry—pubs and clubs—then I applied for a job that was originally advertised as membership-based, which turned out to be the Association (BAA). It was only state based at the time, and after about two years the states started to talk and start negotiations about becoming under one banner.
Together with people like Stewart Latter, Martin McLennan and Andrew O’Hara, we were able to bring all the states together and formulate what we believe is a true national body, because there’s committee and representation in every state. And here we are, 14 years later.
How has the industry changed throughout your time?
Industrial relations issues have changed, that’s for sure. Over the years we’ve had the folate fight with the government, in trying to support industry for the dropping of folate. There was the folate, the salt, and then there was the national weights—a raft of things.
The big thing for me has been the push to find apprentices. We’re working with as many parts of the state governments in each state as we can because the issue is, even though we’re part of a national body, each state has its own state government and its own different issues.
That’s why—getting back to forming a national body—it had to be looked at… not slowly, but it couldn’t be done overnight. We had to look at the type of model that would work, and just getting one person from every state to form a national body was never going to cut it—it needed to have feedback, it needed to have constant communication… that’s why the committees were formed in every state, and they were the ones that steered their representative at national level. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t work.
At the end of the day, that’s what an industry body is all about—working with the people and finding out what they actually want.
Tell me a bit about the apprentice mentor system:
That was started several years ago with the help of one of the Queensland committee members, Bill Rose. He basically put it to the board at the time that if we don’t start nurturing these guys, there’ll be no one left. The board at the time said, “Well Tony, you work with Bill on this”, and we did. Bill was so dedicated in looking after the young ones.
So, the mentor program, Friends of the BAA—all that sort of stuff works in. And as we’ve had people come up through the ranks of their apprenticeship, we just say to them, “listen, would you like to help out?”
Some of them say, “it’s not really for me”, and that’s fair enough, but a lot of them are taking it on board, and they put their hand up and we’ll say, “look, there’s a group down…wherever, they’re having a bit of a problem, would you mind if we sent you down there to talk to the apprentice?” And they put their hand up for that.
It is good, the state governments like the idea, and in some states, we’ve been lucky enough to hold what we call Showcase Days, where we take mentors to the schools with us. The biggest thing is getting into the schools. It doesn’t matter who we are, the schools don’t recognise it as such unless they’re told by the government.
It’s an interesting time, and if we’re able to work with the state governments and get our foot in the door wherever we can to promote baking—we did it in Armadale several years ago where we had 31 students brought in by the government who were interested, we had the mentors and we did workshops, and out of those 31, 17 took on work experience and we picked up six apprentices.
It whittled down but the point is, the more we show them what can happen, rather than just looking at a book or whatever, and we can team them up with the right bakery, then a lot of them are very skilled. They’re not all going to be accountants.
Overall, how do you think the industry has fared through the pandemic?
I think most of them may have done okay. There are some people in regional areas and touristy areas who would have struggled, and of course everyone is struggling now because of the staffing issues. At one stage there, a lot of your local bakeries were doing okay and ticking away nicely, but then they got too big, too busy, and of course in Victoria for example, now they’re sort of snookered because their staff can’t work because they’re not vaccinated. It has a knock-on effect. And it’s right across the country—you can’t get any extra people to work.
Are there any specific goals you’re hoping to kick in 2022?
We’re just hoping we can bring everyone back together again—I’m hoping in 12 months’ time we’ll be back to what life would have normally looked like. When this all started, we were in Melbourne at the Hot Cross Bun Competition, and I made the stupid comment that “this will blow over in two weeks” … We got through SARS and the bird flu; I thought it was all rubbish!
In May I hope we’ll all come together at the Trade Show—this is a bit of a plug, but we’ve got some really good topics that are there that are really going to be eyebrow-raisers.
What is the biggest issue facing the industry today?
Employment is the big thing, whether it’s apprenticeships, or even staffing out the front—it’s a big problem.
What does a day in your life as the BAA Executive Officer look like?
No two days are the same! It’s like anywhere I suppose, there’s always emails so you’ve got to sit there and do that, and you get sidetracked by them.
There’s always something different happening though, whether it’s someone ringing up saying, “look, I’ve got a problem with a staff member”, or “I’ve got the health department on my front doorstep, what do I do?”
It’s good variety, that’s for sure, and coming from small business myself, I feel for these people. And this is why our phone lines are open directly seven days a week now, because there’s nothing worse than being stuck on the weekend trying to sort something out. You can’t say, “just got to the website”.
I feel better when someone rings me on a Saturday afternoon just after one little question because I’ve been there myself when I had a hotel. I do feel good when someone calls on a weekend and we can help them out.
The most important question: what does the BAA executive officer buy when he goes into a bakery?
Either the cream cake or a pie—I’m always happy to try any kind of pie, and I’m a hopeless person for cream cakes.