Lifetime achievement award for Doug Leighton

Well known and highly respected baking industry figure Doug Leighton retired at the end of 2016 from his positon as National Product Development Manager at Tip Top Bakery after 53 years in the baking industry. He was recently presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Baking Industry Research Trust.

Doug started his career in baking in 1963 at Taylor’s Bakery (as Tip Top was known then) on the North Shore in Auckland at the age of 21. Initially packing bread, he processed through all the jobs in the bakery, receiving excellent training, and wound up in charge of the dough room in 1968. “I just loved that,” says Doug. “From then on I had an incredible interest and a thirst for knowledge and it all developed from there. I loved trouble shooting because even though you have a problem it’s always a very satisfying feeling when you overcome it. The more problems I faced the more I liked it.”

Doug’s passion for creating new products and processes saw him initiate key milestones in New Zealand baking history.  He pioneering the Chorleywood process into Tip Top in 1971 when a Tweedy mixer was installed at Stormonts Bakery. Doug transferred to Stormonts to run the machine and introduce MDD bread for the company. It transformed the way Tip Top made bread. From that point on Doug was instrumental in the majority of product development for Tip Top in New Zealand. He was promoted to Production Manager at Stormonts in 1975, something he sees as a major highlight of his career. “It was probably the largest bakery in New Zealand at the time.”

In the late 1970’s he was central to the launch of the first loaf made in a large tin, which became the common style of loaf in New Zealand. Then in 1980 he introduced English Muffins into NZ. Doug was responsible for developing all the recipes and commissioning the plant.  Doug says he got called up one day and told he had to learn to make English Muffins.

“I didn’t know what an English Muffin was. I had no idea. I had to start from scratch. I went across the Melbourne for a couple of weeks where they had just put a muffin plant in and I came back and we invented all the recipes and the process. We were working our normal jobs at the same time. There were only two of us running the actual plant and we were suddenly having to produce 85 000 packets of muffins a week. It was an incredible success, but the trouble was we were starting at about 3 o’ clock in the morning and working until about 7 or 8 at night. The only thing that saved us was that we were only working 5 days a week. But it was very rewarding. They were very good muffins. We were selling them all over New Zealand; people just couldn’t get enough of them.  I was there for three months and then I went back to Stormonts and recruited some other people in and just went in once a week to have a look at it and come up with new ideas for recipes.”

Creating Burgen bread in 1987 was another career highlight. Doug spent time introducing Burgen into bakeries in Australia and the UK and teaching them the method. 

Doug’s involvement with the Baking Industry Research Trust goes back 25 years. He says there has been a lot of value added. “The overall concept is a learning concept and the industry has benefitted very much by the addition of the scientist. It’s a different way of thinking, a different outlook. New Zealand is in a very fortunate position having BIRT. Nowhere else has this. It’s great for scientists to be able to access the funds for projects.”

Doug has benefited from time spent at the Wheat Research Institute in Christchurch, but says mostly he just had to learn on the job. “There was no extra support. You had to do everything yourself. If it weren’t for research I don’t know where the industry would be now. One example is the quality of flour - it is what it is today because of science.”

Prior to being offered employment at Tip Top Bakery, Doug worked in Customs. He took up baking as a career because the opportunity presented itself. “I didn’t sit down and think about it. In those days it was just if you could get a job you grabbed it and I’m so glad I did. When I started, the industry was completely hands on. You were employed for your physical strength. You cut the dough by hand, you tinned it up by hand, took it in and out of the ovens by hand.”

He stayed with Tip Top throughout his career, despite other offers coming his way. “There were some that were tempting but I never seriously thought of leaving. And I stayed in the industry because of the ongoing challenges it presented. I did 30 or 40 years of product development because I loved developing new products and coming up with new processes, new ideas. It was very rewarding, even though I sometimes wondered to myself why I did it because I created so much pressure and so many problems for myself, but I never stopped.”  

Doug has seen dramatic changes to the industry since he began baking in the 1960’s.  “When I started it was all fermentation doughs, and then we moved to MDD and that was a massive change. As a result of that over the next 20 years ingredients just kept developing and changing, and actually it’s still happening today, so it’s been 40 years of progress. When we first started with MDD you just had to pile fat in to make it work. We never had emulsifiers, we never had enzymes. Our flour was so terrible and so inconsistent, and the Chorleywood process just made life so much better.  The whole world has changed, and in general things have changed for the better. The products are more consistent and far healthier than they ever used to be.

“A lot of people say things were better back in the old days, but we used to pile fat in, we used potassium bromide, and now we can make bread without either. There has been tremendous development. I’ve looked back over the years at times and thought about how we used to make bread. I’ve actually gone and made it again, and I’ve always been disappointed in the result. Your memory is clouded. The good old days weren’t that good really. You think ‘Ah that was great’, but when you make it it’s not really that great compared to what we can do today.

“I went to Paris and I loved the bread there, but I came back here and tried to make it and outside of that industry you just can’t do it. If you want something really flavoursome you’ve got to go back to the original way and draw that flavour out of the product, and you can only do that with time. But there are always opportunities. I know there is negativity towards high speed mixing. I understand all that. But there are all these different avenues for what we can do. There’s so much choice now.”

Doug advises those coming into the industry now to always question what they are being taught. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask for advice. Keep asking, ‘Why am I doing this, why not do it another way?’ always question what you’re learning. If you keep looking and keep thinking it will be to your advantage. Be open-minded. The next opportunity is just around the corner. The industry is always evolving. ”

Doug sees big change ahead for the baking industry. “Everything has a time and things always change. I’ve heard some managers say MDD is the way of the future, that it’s going to be there forever, and I just think that’s not right. I’ve seen it come from fermentation, then I made my first no-time dough and I didn’t even know I could make it, so it’s going to change. I don’t know exactly what the change will be. I suspect that it could go back a little more to fermentation.

“Somebody will come up with something and everybody else will follow because that’s what happens. It may take 20 years for that to happen but it will happen. There’s also the bigger context of food production and security. When I started the bread wasn’t wrapped. The bread used to come off the conveyor and you’d stick it into wire baskets straight onto the trucks. It’s hard to imagine that today. Whether it’s the way it’s wrapped, the way it’s produced, or something else, people demand change.”

Doug acknowledges the difficulty of problem of attracting the right young people into the industry. “The industry has always battled with the perception of baking as a low occupation. It’s actually such an incredible industry. I look around it and see a lot of bakers who are now CEO’s of companies. New Zealand does very well in product and process development. People here have got a bit of that Kiwi ingenuity. But I have been particularly lucky because I came through as all these processes changed, so I’ve had the opportunity to change and learn with them. You’ve got to be prepared to think outside the square and take risks.”

Doug says he has absolutely no regrets about his career in the baking industry. “I consider myself very lucky to have had all that time in the baking industry. There have been some extremely stressful times, but the rewards have always overcome the stresses.”