Is there a better way? Featured

5:58am EDT November 30, 2010
Is there a better way?

Prairie City Bakery may be a bakery, but it operates like a traditional manufacturer, doing everything a manufacturer does – from product development to taking that product to market. Company president Bill Skeens and his team produce more than 65 different bakery items, each made to Prairie City’s specific specifications.

“We are always looking for new ideas and ways to satisfy the customer and always ask ourselves, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’” says Skeens. Though the company, itself, has a total of 11 employees, Prairie City’s impact on employment goes well beyond that. Last year, the company sold more than $20.5 million in bakery goods that were produced in seven separate bakery operations – primarily in the Midwest and Canada – that employed more than 500 people.

Skeens was named one of 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and U.S. Bank. We asked him how he overcomes challenges, innovates and gives back.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Three years ago, a major account of ours was looking to develop a private label program in a very short period of time. On a Thursday, we met with their buyers and got specifically what an ideal product line would look like from a quality, packaging and pricing standpoint. The following Friday, we came back with live product, packaging and pricing and laid out 25 alternative products, two different packaging designs and pricing on all items in their conference room.

This was a total company effort involving and coordinating with all of our suppliers, creative packaging designers and financial people to deliver this is just over a week. We were in competition with much larger companies and because we delivered we ended up producing 15 of their 18 private label items and continue to deliver on this business today.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Our people are all empowered to “Do what is right for the business.” When I worked for a large bakery manufacturer, we only sold what we could make, and this often was not what the customer wanted. With the Prairie City Bakery model of outsourcing of manufacturing, this is a huge advantage because we want to sell what the customer wants to buy. We do not have blinders on that say “This is the only way we can do it.” We look to solve problems and provide a solution, and then we get our reward of selling the right product that provides us with revenue.

Customers “vote” with their dollars every day and we are always looking for creative solutions that set us apart, add value and makes customers not only want to buy from us, but to recommend us and to be and advocate of Prairie City Bakery.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We outsource all our cold storage frozen warehousing, shipping and delivery, which employs another 400 people in addition to the other jobs we impact. Our model is very lean and efficient. We do what we do best and outsource the rest, and coordinate everything along the way.

On the fun side of business, we also are the “Official Cookie of the Chicago Cubs” and Wrigley Field, along with the Chicago Wolves and many of the local minor league teams. We also are in eight major golf tournaments around the country.

From a community standpoint, Prairie City Bakery has many of their racks put together at Lambs Farm in Libertyville and supports District 128 schools, Prairie Pedal in Decatur, Youth and Family Counseling of Lake County.

How to reach: Prairie City Bakery,

In October 2010, Smart Business and U.S. Bank recognized nine business leaders for their commitment to business excellence and the impact their organizations make on the regional community. Treated to a keynote address by Middleby Corp. Chairman and CEO Selim Bassoul, these nine leaders composed the honor roll:

Nancy Ruscheinski

Bill Skeens

Dave Brittsan

Amanda Lannert

Scott Morey

Joel Fruendt

Jason Beans

Jim Signorelli

Larry Neibauer