As Niall Irwin, director of Irwin’s plant bakery, Portadown, NI, incoming president of the Irish Master Bakers Association, received the chain of office from outgoing president Patrick Smyth, it was a significant moment. "He has been inspirational for the trade!" said Irwin.

Patrick Smyth, of AB Mauri’s Yeast Products in Finglas, Dublin, has been president for four years that is not one but two terms. The association comprises not only plant, but also craft bakers from all-Ireland, so welcoming a new president is quite an occasion. There were many marked tributes to Smyth and his wife, Angela, who have played a major role in social, business and also fundraising events for the Irish Bakers’ Benevolent Society, which has paid out £46,000 in the past four years.

Also in the past four years, on the business side, the conference heard how the Northern Ireland Bakery Council formed an alliance with Northern Ireland Manufacturing. They managed to get industrial rates, which were introduced in 2007/8, capped at 30% of government expectation. They have been active lobbying the NI Food & Drink Association and government. They lobbied hard over EU driver hours, regulations and breaks, so MEPs are now reviewing them. And they are seeking to influence country-of-origin labelling and lobbying against electricity charges, which are 40% higher than the UK. The Council also implemented a Training for Success programme and trainees are now beginning to enjoy management roles.

For the Republic, Gerard Cunningham of the Flour Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Association, said the industry was "facing huge challenges". But he began by paying tribute to Patrick (Pat) Garvey, who died in May, over his lobbying on VAT rates, the setting up of an insurance scheme and his achievements in training. Then, outlining the current challenges, Jim Hyland, for the Irish Bread Bakers’ Association, said that a salt reduction model was in place, the minimum wage was too high, and 2007 flour costs had made a significant impact, going up twice.

Discounters had set up in the Republic and were achieving 8.5% of sales. Tesco and Dunnes were still managing to dominate the market, but he emphasised: "The industry is facing major flour price increases again, as well as other commodities, and this represents huge challenges."

The conference saw three speakers give papers. David Wragg of Mars, still a family firm producing goods ranging from chocolate confectionery to petfood worldwide, spoke about Integrated Business Manage-ment, a business programme run by Oliver Wight.

Key senior management phrases, such as "We support the responsibility of others", "We need freedom to shape our future", "We need profit to remain free", were all stressed. David Wragg said: "We empowered managers, because the process enables good decisions to be made. Sales need to be forecast and all other departments need to support them," he said. Integrated Business Management seems to have worked at Mars, where profits were up 7% in recession, beating all targets, he added.

Gordon Polson of the Federation of Bakers, with eight plant baker members in the UK, spoke mainly about salt reduction in branded bread. He said that, overall, a 30% reduction had been achieved. The level used to be 0.52 sodium per 800g loaf. Now it was 0.41 although 0.43 had been the previous target.

Now the goalpost had moved again and the 2012 target was 0.4 "and we have not agreed to meet it!" said Polson.

The reasons he spelt out were: technological stickiness of the dough; taste "you must take the consumer with you"; and commercial "owners have invested millions in a brand and won’t risk upsetting consu-mers overnight".

He said: "More research is needed by the Food Standards Agency and a new route-map is required. We have to stand up and be different. Some products can cope, others can’t, but it is an opportunity for new dialogue on potassium chloride. The challenges are there."

Speaking about regulations, as opposed to mandatory directives, he said: "There are new views and drafts every two weeks!"

Speaker David Powell, formerly of David Powell Bakeries and now a consultant to Rich Products, to whom he sold his successful business, inspired delegates with his talk on ’Be daring, be different, be practical!’ a partial quote taken from the biography of photographer Cecil Beaton.

Powell spoke about quality long-fermented breads, hand- moulded, baked on the oven sole, and about cakes provide completely different flavours and recipes, then about service "the salesperson may get grief when he turns up, but the actual owner gets a ’thank you for coming’!"

New president Niall Irwin, who studied bakery at Thomas Danby in Leeds, told the conference: "I am proud of our industry. It is changing fast, but must give us the returns we deserve. But let’s look after it. Let’s delight our customers. If we do it correctly, we all prosper."