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Food industry veteran sees firm on the rise

You may not have seen the name of Fleischer’s Bagels Inc. too much in the grocery store, but you will soon, says Robert Drago.
Drago, 41, became president of the Macedon firm roughly one year ago when its founder, Marc Fleischer, retired. Since taking over, he has put an emphasis on taking Fleischer’s from being largely a producer and packager of store-brand and private-label bagels to having a well-known brand of its own, with a selection of bakery products that includes healthful offerings.
Fleischer’s has grown from a single retail store into a full-scale food manufacturing business that makes 40,000 fresh, frozen and refrigerated bagels per hour during four shifts, running six days a week.
Founded in 1971 in Schenectady, the firm relocated to the Rochester area in 1974. The operation was moved to its current base in Wayne County in 1993. Fleischer’s has some 200 employees, with 140 locally and the remainder in North Carolina.
Drago describes Fleischer’s as a $30 million growth company and expects that the new products, as well as an end to the recession, will result in higher sales in 2010. He is looking forward to growing the business further.
“I’m excited to be in a position to take an established company to the next level,” Drago says.
A third-generation food industry executive, the Buffalo-area native started in the business in 10th grade, working part time at his grandfather’s food and baking company, Bison Canning Co. Inc., which was established in 1927. The business was sold to Goya Foods Inc. in the early 1990s.
Drago worked his way up at the business and says the experience was irreplaceable.
“I went to college, graduate school, a million executive ed seminars and talks, but the best training I had was from working at a young age in the (family) plant, because you learn a lot about not just how business operates at its core but how to deal with people at all different levels,” Drago says. “It was probably the best training ground I had.”
He earned a bachelor of science degree in finance from Babson College in Massachusetts in 1990 and then received his MBA from the State University at Buffalo in 1995.
Drago married in 1997 and lived in Orchard Park until roughly four years ago, when he took a job as vice president and general manager of eDiets.com Inc., a ready-to-eat fresh meal delivery program based in Florida.
While he enjoyed Florida, Drago was eager to return to Upstate New York.
He was introduced to Fleischer’s Bagels and its owner, Ancor Capital Partners LLC, a private equity company based in Fort Worth, Texas, that had bought the business in 2005, through its former owners, Buffalo-based Strategic Investment and Holding Inc.
Drago was chosen as president after a national search, the company says. He also serves on Fleischer’s board of directors.
He has stayed in food manufacturing, he says, because it is a great training ground, forcing you to use every major discipline on a daily basis, from finance and sales to operations and procurement.
Ray Kingsbury, Anchor Capital’s managing director, describes Drago as an excellent leader.
“One of the key attributes of a strong leader is building a strong team,” Kingsbury says. “Rob has done this at Fleischer’s by recruiting and hiring new additions to the team, developing and challenging existing managers, and making tough decisions to implement changes that were needed.”
Kingsbury praised Drago’s efforts to take Fleischer’s to the next level of growth.
“Rob is a great leader because he is smart, fair, has a strong work ethic and has actively sought out experiences to develop his skills,” Kingsbury says.

Growth plan

Organized and disciplined, Drago has a clear vision of where he wants the company to go. The company’s plans for growth are:
–Geographic expansion focusing west of the Mississippi and into Canada;
–A greater focus on innovation and new product development, with a concentration on a greater assortment of health and wellness products; and
–Sales channel expansion with greater penetration into alternative retail formats and the food service distribution channel.
Drago expects the goals to be met both organically and through acquisition.
He is excited about the roll-out of Fleischer’s branded products during the second half of the year, including a bagel bar line that will go head-to-head with the granola and energy bars. The bagel bars, which will come in a variety of flavors, focus on convenience and freshness as a handheld bakery product that is healthy.
“It will be a fresh alternative to a cereal or power bar,” Drago says. “Instead of grabbing a Clif Bar after a workout, someone can opt for our product.”
Drago sees tremendous potential for the bagel bars across the country, particularly in places such as bakery cafes, schools and coffee shops.
Other Fleischer’s branded offerings expected to be introduced this year include more certified-organic bakery items, such as a 100-calorie bagel and a tasty healthy line of bagels that is diabetic-friendly and heart-healthy, he says.
Drago says there are several challenges in the industry. They include employee development and more rigorous food safety regulations, which he believes will help even out the playing field.
Managing commodity fluctuations is another key challenge, he says. The rapid rise in flour, fuel and packaging costs in 2008 put many baking companies out of business.
To mitigate that risk, Fleischer’s has a hands-on relationship with its commodity brokers and consultants.

Rising early

Drago wakes up at 5 a.m. and is at the gym by 6 a.m. five days a week.
Marketing and new product development have dominated his time of late. He also spends time keeping up with consumer tastes, customer trends and customer needs.
Drago likes to be visible and tries to walk the plant floor twice a day. He also holds quarterly town hall meetings with employees.
He spends roughly 40 percent of his time traveling. Of that, some 60 percent is customer-related and the balance is attending board meetings and visiting key vendors. He also visits the North Carolina facility.
Drago says his leadership style is communication-focused.
“In good times it’s critical to communicate and in bad times it’s even more critical to communicate with your customers, suppliers and, most importantly, your people,” he says.
The best part of his job is the people he works with, Drago says.
“We don’t always agree on everything, but I genuinely like the people on our team on a personal level,” he says. “There are no big egos or prima donnas here.”
The worst part can be the heavy travel and the technological advances that keep him busy around the clock.
“My BlackBerry never stops vibrating, 24/7,” he says.
Drago loves setting goals for himself professionally and personally. In the long term, he would like to get out of his comfort zone and sit on a non-food company’s board or run a non-food enterprise at some point.
He learned early on to seek out mentors and was taught that the worst thing that could happen when you asked was that someone would say no.
“You can’t wait for people to come and take you under their wing; you have to realize what your strengths and weaknesses are, then go out and try to find people that can help you where you’re the weakest,” he says.
Sharon Randaccio, president of Performance Management Partners Inc. in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, has known Drago for nearly a decade. They met when he was a vice president at Goya.
Her first impression of Drago was a good one, she says.
“He had intellectual curiosity and loved to learn about people and business,” Randaccio says. “He enjoyed trying new things and wasn’t afraid of taking some risk.”
Drago also wanted to learn more about himself and what attributes were required for success, Randaccio says.
“I was confident that his drive, strong relationship skills and focus on results would enable him to lead from the top of an organization,” she says.

Off the job

Drago spends much of his leisure time with his family. He and his wife, Annmarie, live in Pittsford with their sons, Andrew, 10; Alex, 8; and Matthew, 4. He attends their sporting events and school activities.
He also enjoys running and aviation, having flown a Piper Cherokee Warrior.
He is active on Fleischer’s board and serves on the boards of a sister bakery in Long Island City called Tom Cat Bakery Inc. and of Hillside Children’s Center.
Drago is an avid reader. He enjoys business books but will pick up almost any reading material to peruse. He says his thirst for knowledge comes from his parents: His father still works at Goya, and his mother was an educator.
“I learned at a very young age how much you really don’t know,” Drago says.
Drago speaks proudly of a roughly 50-pound weight loss he accomplished during his undergraduate years, and he has since kept most of it off. A year after the weight loss, he ran his first Boston Marathon, and he has run it twice since.
“It had a profound effect on my personal and professional future as it was the first major life goal I set and accomplished,” Drago says of the weight loss.
Although he has spent his professional life in the food business, Drago says he is probably the world’s pickiest eater. He enjoys fruits, vegetables, seafood and a good steak but is not a fan of milk, cheese, eggs or many processed foods. And bagels? He likes the plain kind only.
Looking to the future, Drago says a key priority for Fleischer’s will be relevance.
“In a rapidly consolidating industry like ours, an ongoing change is making sure our value proposition is relevant compared to our competition,” Drago says. “What worked for the company during its first 30 years will not necessarily drive our growth for the next 30 years.”
adeckert@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Robert Drago
Position: President, Fleischer’s Bagels Inc.
Age: 41
Education: B.S. in finance, Babson College, Wellesley, Mass., 1990; MBA, State University at Buffalo, 1995
Family: Wife, Annmarie; sons, Andrew, 10; Alex, 8; and Matthew, 4
Residence: Pittsford
Outside activities: Running, aviation, reading, attending his children’s sports events and activities
Quote: “I went to college, graduate school, a million executive ed seminars and talks, but the best training I had was from working at a young age in the (family) plant, because you learn a lot about not just how business operates at its core but how to deal with people at all different levels. It was probably the best training ground I had.”

06/05/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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