Limerick born baker in New York.
Courtesy Irish Times, John Breen in New York.
The day we meet he has to push back our appointment because there is a robotics firm pitching for business and a plant inspection by one of his clients. As I approach the Aladdin Bakers factory, a big tanker is pumping what I later discover is flour through a nozzle in the wall. That can happen as often as four times a day as the plant uses 450,000 pounds of flour a week.
Tom trained in manufacturing engineering and worked at Verbatim for a while before leaving Ireland on a Donnelly visa that he had forgotten he had applied for years before.
“It felt to me then [in Ireland] that it was really about who you were connected to, whose son you were or who you knew. My father was a creamery manager from Cappamore so he didn’t have a lot of connections in the electronics manufacturing industry, so I left. I arrived in New York on January 1st, 1990. One day later and my visa would have been useless.”
He got a job as a manufacturing engineer in a company that made melba toast. When it was bought out a few years later, he was asked to be head of operations. Not realising that he didn’t know how to be head of operations, he said yes.
What he also didn’t know was that the investment group that had bought the business had cleared out half the management and staff, a group that took all their institutional memory with them. It was a steep learning curve.
It turned out to be a profitable transaction for the investment group; it bought the firm for $14.5 million and sold it six years later for $70 million. A lot of that added value came from Tom’s operations brain and smart acquisitions.
The group bought a breadcrumb factory in Detroit and moved the plant to its factory in the Bronx. As Tom describes it, his job was “to keep the wheels on the bus”, expanding the range of products it was manufacturing and constantly getting more efficiency out of the factory.
The company was sold again in 2010 and this time Tom moved on. Now he works with Aladdin Bakers, maker of the Baked in Brooklyn brand.
He describes a company as a big box full of equipment and people that makes something that people want to buy. The difficulty he has in Brooklyn is that the box is only so big and he has to squash a lot of equipment and people into it.
Touring the plant I marvel. It is a labyrinth of machinery and conveyor belts spread over different levels as the factory is built on a hill. His job is like packing six bicycles into a phone box every day and making bread with them.
Because of the limited footprint, he has had special equipment designed that moves the production line up two storeys and then loops it around and around itself like an Escher drawing, finally returning to ground level to be packed and boxed. There are metal mezzanines all over the factory where he has added more machines.
He is constantly pointing out huge pieces of equipment, showing me little modifications they have made to suit their particular purpose at Aladdin. The plant runs 24/7 and has 200 employees. The staff are mainly involved in delicate tasks involving judgment and experience.
Looking to the future, Tom says the bakery will employ ever more sophisticated robotics that will wring more efficiencies. It is always investing, packing ever more sophisticated bicycles into the phone box.
On the day I visit, the bakery is making pitta breads, bagels, burger buns, baguettes and crackers. The smell is beautiful but Tom no longer notices.
We pass a huge box on the factory floor. It contains a a 25-ton chain that they must replace on a machine that weekend. “We take on big jobs and we don’t scare easy,” says Tom.
There is very little flour around I notice. Tom explains that it is highly flammable when mixed with air so it is distributed by pipes from the huge tanks that take delivery a few times a day. “Flour is our oxygen,” he says, “we can’t waste it.”
Our conversation turns to the recent inauguration of Donald Trump as US president.
“I was travelling so I didn’t get to vote but I would have voted Trump. It was a case of choose your poison. At times, with the amount of regulation, I feel they don’t want us here in New York.
“Minimum wage? Great, but make it a national minimum wage. Make it $20 but make it for everyone, otherwise I am competing with people in New Jersey who don’t have the same costs as me!”
Fairness is a theme he returns to with with immigration.
“Make it fair, make it legal. Let people in,” he says. “People who want to come here want to work, they want to make money and that will drive the economy. Immigration is good for business.
“Ireland has the opposite problem. There were 26 engineers in my graduating class and only three of us stayed. Those 23 people, had they stayed, would have created jobs, God knows how many, but there was nothing there for us.
“I went back a few times over the years to suss out whether I could make a go of it, but I never felt the same room for growth as I do here. I know it’s a cliché but this is the land of opportunity if you are not afraid of hard work.”