A sizable whiteboard, covered with notes scrawled in black marker, hangs along one wall of Autumn Bayles’ airy, sunlit office. Binders and papers are stacked neatly on her desk. Sketches of her company’s new headquarters, whose construction she’s overseeing, rest upright on the floor, propped against another wall.
It’s a pretty standard corporate setting for a senior vice president for strategic operations.
But in the center of the large conference table that stretches underneath the whiteboard is a basket filled with packages of Tastykakes, the iconic Philadelphia pastries that have sustained countless school kids, campers, and late-night snackers. The basket is not sitting on the table because Bayles has a sweet tooth.
It is there for professional reasons: Bayles may not wield a spatula or run a mixer, but with a Blackberry and a briefcase, she’s every bit as important to Tasty Baking Company’s success as her bakery colleagues.
Bayles runs Tasty’s operations, manufacturing, and supply-chain functions, while also shepherding the construction of the company’s new, state-of-the-art bakery and headquarters.
“I wear two hats,” she says. “I work on this”— here she points to the artist’s renderings of the new facility— “but then I also am very focused on our front operations. We’re a bakery, so it’s not like we can bake a bunch of stuff and leave it there for a year and then pay attention to this. The stuff only lasts a couple of days. We have a couple of weeks, a couple of days on certain items. Every day has to be a good day in a bakery.”
After graduating from Lehigh in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, Bayles hooked up with Pricewaterhouse’s consulting arm. Following the accounting firm’s merger with Coopers & Lybrand, the new company set up its consultants in a separate division within the company. But when the Enron fiasco took down Andersen Consulting, PricewaterhouseCoopers, now skittish about having its consulting division linked with its auditors, sold the section to IBM.
The move would have repercussions for Bayles.
“I didn’t want to work for a huge conglomerate,” she says. “Once the IBM merger happened, I hung out for a little while, and then I sort of figured I preferred a smaller environment.”
Before long, a former classmate from the Wharton School, where Bayles had earned her MBA, came calling. He had recently accepted the chief financial officer’s post at Tasty Baking and wanted to know if Bayles was interested in the company’s open chief information officer slot.
“Having that thought in the back of my head that, gee, I really missed the smallness of Pricewaterhouse—not that it’s small, but it had sort of a family firm feeling—I kind of yearned to go back,” she says. “It was a great opportunity. I said, ‘Do I get free cupcakes?’ They said yes. I said, ‘I’ll take the job.’”
Among Bayles’ first assignments was implementing an enterprise resource planning system at Tasty’s aging facilities. She gradually took on other roles and in time was promoted to her current position. While retaining her operational responsibilities, Bayles is also spearheading the construction project that will see the company relocate later this year from Philadelphia’s Hunting Park section to the old Navy Yard in South Philly. That part of her job has brought new challenges.
“We have to essentially re-engineer all of the production lines that are in the bakery,” she says. “We’ve had eighty-some years to do that. Then we sort of in an instant replicate that and make it better. We want to have more automation, better flexibility, more modern technology.”
A Role Model
Bayles is careful to spread credit for Tasty Baking’s turnaround to her colleagues at the company, many of them decades-long veterans, but it was her training and experience that allowed her to aggressively confront the venerable brand’s operational issues and find ways to solve them.
“What I was taught at Lehigh is that, especially in an engineering discipline, you don’t necessarily know how you’re going to solve the problem when you start to solve it. So that’s OK, don’t be afraid, just keep going,” says Bayles, who recalls buying Krimpets along with sweatshirts at the Lehigh Bookstore during her undergraduate days.
“We kind of dissect it: Here’s the cause of it; maybe I could find some information about this, and as you go along, the solution starts to come out little bits at a time. There are some people I’ve noticed in my career who say, ‘Well, gee, I don’t know how, I never had to work on something like this, so I don’t know how to do it.’
“I don’t have that problem because what we were taught in school was that you won’t know how to solve it when you first look at it, but you will find a way to look at it, and it’ll come to you.”
Bayles does not see herself as a role model, though she acknowledges that women are underrepresented in technical positions such as the one she holds. The demands of her job are foremost on her mind, but once in a while, she says, she steps back and tries to encourage other women to pursue technical careers.
Through participation in professional associations, such as the Fort Washington, Pa.-based Forum of Executive Women, which elected her its treasurer for 2008-09, she tries to set an example, especially for girls and younger women.
“Some little girls just aren’t interested in technical areas,” Bayles says. “OK, fine, they’re going to do other things. But then there are others that I think have an interest and are told they shouldn’t. That’s who you want to get to.
“Then,” she adds, “there are some who have an interest and just don’t care what anybody thinks. That’s sort of like me.”
Indeed, Bayles’ involvement in technical matters dates to her girlhood, when she developed an interest in science and engineering. She played with Legos and Star Wars toys and such. Equally important, her parents encouraged Bayles’ interests.
“My father is a chemist and never said to me, ‘Gee, Autumn, why would you be doing something as silly as that?’ He’d always be explaining stuff to me,” Bayles says. “That helped me. It wasn’t until I got to school that I start remembering people saying, ‘That’s a little weird that you would like that or that you would be interested,’ but it was too late.”
That early tendency to do her own thing has evolved, at Tasty Baking, into a willingness to dive right in and tinker around in the pursuit of improvement.
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Walking a visitor through Tasty’s current headquarters, Bayles bumps into company CEO Charles Pizzi, who shares immediate—and unsolicited—praise.
“She’s terrific—simply terrific,” Pizzi says. “Professionally and personally, she’s a leader—a true leader.”
True leaders are often decisive, of course, and Bayles is no exception. When she is invited to share which of Tastykake’s almost countless products is her favorite—a question many would consider akin to being asked to identify their favorite child—she answers swiftly.
“That’s easy,” she says. “It’s the buttercream iced chocolate cream-filled cupcakes. It was my favorite when I walked in here five years ago, and it’s still my favorite.”
Photos by Ryan Donnell
Posted on Friday, September 18, 2009