CHICAGO — This is not a succession story.

Kim Bickford never really dreamed of becoming the CEO of Clyde’s Donuts. Not when he was a boy with his favorite chocolate iced cake donut (his grandfather’s formula) packing in his school lunch. And not when he was a teenager and worked summers at the Chicago bakery on the donut line, helping with anything from mixing to packaging. And not even as a young man serving in the US Navy.

Not until he answered a call from his dad did Bickford seriously consider joining the family business.

“I hadn’t yet planned out my strategy for what I was going to do when I came home from the Navy,” Bickford recalled. “I had returned from the Navy, and my dad called me. I was just sort of hanging out in Arizona with family, and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about coming back to Chicago and working for me in the donut business?’ I hadn’t really thought about it until then. But I went back, and he put me to work the next day.”

He first ran routes — back then they only had six — delivering fresh donuts, muffins and Danish throughout Chicagoland.

“It gave me a chance to really understand the business and what the challenges were, especially in terms of timing and product mix,” Bickford said. He eventually moved into sales and oversaw those routes, building them to more than 20. He brought in staff to help supervise them so he could focus on key customers and growing the business while his brother Kent served as president and CFO.

When his brother retired after dedicating 40 years of service to the company, Bickford kept the family tradition of putting in the work without relying on his name. Eventually, he stepped into the role of CEO.


“It was important that I always demonstrated a disciplined work ethic so people around me in the business, whether they worked beside me, reported to me or were out in the industry, knew I wasn’t taking advantage of my family position.”

That’s often meant getting his hands dirty. Bickford has been known to help dig a truck out of a snowbank or take late-night calls to help with a problem in the bakery. And he’s always happy to do so because it’s part of the call of duty.

“These are the kinds of things you just have to do as a leader,” he said. “Not because you’re ‘forced’ to but because it’s expected of you. You have to just figure out how to do certain things and answer the call because you’ve got to be the one people turn to.”

Bickford learned these qualities by simply looking up.

“I learned a lot about work ethic by watching my dad as I was growing up,” Bickford recalled. “And after I joined the company full time, he still demonstrated doing whatever it took to get the job done. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with me, knowing that somebody’s got to step up.”

This mentality applies to more than just the down-and-dirty part of the job. It’s a philosophy for the bigger challenges as well.


Throughout his nearly 45 years with Clyde’s, Bickford’s leadership has guided the company through changes, challenges, trials and tribulations. In recent years, the industry has seen significant consolidation that’s greatly impacting the donut category with about half a dozen major players
in the in-store bakery and foodservice space. Remember those route trucks? They’re now in Clyde’s rear-view mirror after the company changed its model from fresh to frozen, positioning itself as a key player in the wake of consolidation.

But growth isn’t necessarily the consequence of sweeping changes; sometimes the best results come
from incremental change that yields long-term success.

“The key has always been operational efficiency,” he said. “We track efficiency and productivity faithfully and look for ways to implement small changes in those areas. And that supports not only efficiency but also product quality and throughput. Those remain our cores.”

This philosophy is what helped the bakery not only grow during — and, at times, despite — the pandemic, but also keep the donuts coming in the face of increased consumer demand and supply chain disruption.

“Looking back over my 40-plus years to where we are today, things have changed dramatically,” Bickford said. “Our throughput is much higher, and we use larger and faster equipment. And we’re always looking for ways to improve the company and the bottom line while maintaining a commitment to quality.”

Bickford’s emphasis on quality and efficiency through incremental change increased the bakery’s throughput and exceeded capacity at the bakery’s current facility well before COVID struck. Although sales took a hit during foodservice shutdowns and stay-home orders in early 2020, when business rebounded, it came back strong.

By Q3 of that year, Clyde’s pre-COVID product development was coming to fruition, and in 2021 the company achieved the growth it had projected eight years prior. It was clear to Bickford where he needed to take production.

“The demand was still great, and we needed to plan for the future because we didn’t want to get into a situation where we were stymied,” he said. “We set out on a growth pattern, and we’re still working toward that as we continue to expand.”

That expansion came to fruition when Clyde’s recently announced the move to its second facility located down the street in neighboring Glendale Heights. The move marks a milestone in Clyde’s 100-year history as the first time the bakery will operate in two locations.

The second plant will take some pressure off the Addison bakery’s capacity and give it the breathing room to focus on product development and going after new business. And, perhaps most importantly, the technology available for a new bakery will help the brand grow. Then again, Bickford’s incremental change model means there’s plenty of time for that.


Given the current state of supply chain, taking small steps is a smart strategy. Rather than go all-in, Bickford is proceeding with caution, focusing on startup efficiency above all.

“Things are costing more on the equipment and installation side of things, so we have to be very cautious,” he said. “We don’t go crazy with spending, but we also know we have to get the plant
operational in a timely fashion. It’s a fine line.”

To achieve that incremental growth, Bickford relies on a three-pronged approach, focusing on product, staff and customers.

“If you don’t have a quality product, customers aren’t going to come back,” Bickford said. “I seek out leaders with strong work ethic, so we’re building teams, managers and supervisors who embody that. There has to be a high regard for the people you work alongside because it’s about taking care of the people who are also helping you succeed.”

Bickford has one particular leader on the radar — his son, Josh, currently Clyde’s executive VP of strategic initiatives — who will ultimately follow in his footsteps.

“He’s got a lot of smarts and a lot going for him,” Bickford said of his son. “I’m excited for what his future holds.”

Bickford can’t look toward the future without recalling how his own journey unfolded. Where would his path have led had he not answered the call from his father?

“I have asked myself, ‘What would I have done if I hadn’t been blessed with this opportunity?’” Bickford pondered. “I don’t really need to know the answer because I took the chance I was given.”

And given his innate sense of duty, it’s likely that Bickford would have found his own way back to the bakery, his family and his grandfather’s chocolate iced cake donut.