Meeting less than four weeks prior to today’s congressional elections, which featured one of the most bitterly fought campaigns in history, members of the North American Millers’ Association displayed how tough opponents (yes, fierce competitors) ought to conduct themselves for the common good. It is certainly not far-fetched to contrast the actions taken by NAMA and its board of directors in desiring the well-being of the entire milling industry and in displaying exemplary camaraderie with the ire and high degree of negativity that characterized the 2010 political fight at all levels of government. Here were millers of wheat, corn and oats joined in a single association only a dozen years ago demonstrating how groups that had not worked together previously could succeed in dealing with many harsh matters. In the face of many long-standing differences, these millers have successfully collaborated to build an association that already has a proud record and a rising confidence in the future.

Whereas the national political debate was not about executive leadership, with the White House occupant in place for at least another two years, the NAMA convention witnessed a well thought-out change in top leadership that one could only wish would serve as the model for the political arena. Dual leadership changes happened smoothly at NAMA. The convention paid glowing tribute to the retired Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Faga, who had held the full-time presidency of the association from the formation of NAMA in 1998. Ms. Faga was hailed by three executives who had worked with her for her leadership of an association formed from groups that had their own proud and individual histories. Speaking at the annual banquet, the three noted her quietly effective leadership and credited her with making a success of an effort that few present-day politicians, even statesmen, could achieve.

New president a seasoned professional

Ms. Faga’s successor in the NAMA presidency, Mary K. Waters, is a seasoned professional in Washington, having represented corporate interests as well as government agencies in all parts of the capital. Ms. Waters indicates that her charge from the board would have her pursue a more pro-active style than in the past, when both NAMA and its largest predecessor, the Millers’ National Federation, gained great respect for their non-confrontational style. The latter meant a focus on protecting the interests of millers rather than seeking actions that might be seen as directly beneficial. Ms. Waters expresses the hope that a few forward steps might be undertaken under her lead, while NAMA continues assuring that nothing happens within government that would threaten the well-being of its 49 member companies.

Indeed, this slight shift in style might be necessitated by how Washington itself is likely to change once the full impact of today’s elections is ascertained. The one certainty is a Congress that is even less able or willing to enact new legislation of tremendous impact, creating the situation where President Obama’s leadership will mainly be exercised through the executive regulatory process. Much may be done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as by agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that could have a huge impact upon milling. It will be up to Ms. Waters and her staff to make sure that the voice of millers is heard in these deliberations, especially in the hugely important area of regulations affecting dietary recommendations, product labeling and descriptions, food advertising and marketing.

Guide in dealing with new regulations

With so much emphasis likely to be on regulatory actions, Ms. Waters also realizes that preventing harm will have to be accompanied by steps that mean to help millers of any size deal with the expanding panoply of new federal rules. An increasingly disputatious Congress-White House relationship along with the president trying to figure out how best to position himself to win a second term present a situation where rules may be put forward that would not even have been considered in a less fraught period.

Alerting millers to these possibilities is a formidable task in itself. Seeking needed revisions is a difficult prospect in this environment. Guiding member companies in how best to respond to this situation is the main task at hand.

Ms. Waters will have a new NAMA chairman to help counsel her in her new job and its huge array of issues. This is the second change in leadership that makes the millers’ association stand out as a symbol of well-ordered affairs among hard competitors. Paul T. Maass, who has headed ConAgra Mills for the past three years and impressively advanced to president of the Commercial Foods Division of ConAgra Foods, Inc. just as the millers’ convention opened, is the new chairman. A veteran of 22 years with ConAgra and an executive recognized for his innovative bent in a business where new products are not all that commonplace, he also happens to be one of the youngest NAMA chairmen. Mr. Maass succeeds John C. Miller, the founder and president of the Miller Milling Co., as chairman.

This means NAMA will have had two entrepreneurial types in a row in the chairmanship. As an industry where intelligent, hands-on leadership has been dominant for many years, this embrace of innovation, even if coincidental, signifies how milling itself is changing, how the industry’s role in assuring consumer acceptance of grain-based foods has grown in significance, and, yes, how greatly important an association like NAMA is and should be to the industry’s future well-being and prosperity. MBN