When Carrie Jones-Barber was 12 years old, a salesman for her family’s company, Dawn Foods, called her home in the middle of the night asking for her father’s help with an issue.
Jones-Barber’s father, Ron Jones, was president of Dawn Foods at the time.
“I told myself I wanted to do what my dad does someday,” Jones-Barber said. “Help people solve problems.”
Today, Jones-Barber is the CEO of the third-generation family company. She’s responsible for making major corporate decisions for Dawn, including managing the overall operations and resources of the company.
The 100-year-old company is headquartered in Jackson, where it began as a bakery. Today, Dawn is a global bakery manufacturer and supplier that manufactures and distributes mixes, bases, icings, glazes, fillings and fully baked products and equipment to the food industry. Each distribution center has about 2,000 items, distributing all the ingredients a baker needs, including items like flour and sugar, a variety of flavors and decorating items, and packaging.
Dawn employs more than 4,000 people and serves more than 40,000 customers in over 100 countries. Their customers include artisanal and industrial bakers, supermarkets and food service companies.
Jones-Barber has been with Dawn for more than 30 years. Since working her way up to CEO in 2006, she has helped establish the company as a global leader in sweet bakery by introducing global strategic planning processes and overseeing one of the company’s largest acquisitions to date in Europe. Today, Dawn is a multibillion-dollar leader in the bakery industry.
Why did you decide to join the family business?
When I’d get together with my family on the weekends, my dad, uncle and grandfather always talked about their work and were so passionate about it. They loved what they did. As a kid, my parents invited salesmen from Dawn over for dinner, and we got to know many of them and their families. When I was about 12 years old, the phone rang in the middle of the night. When I answered, a gentleman on the other end of the phone said he had a problem and needed to talk to my dad. This light just went on in my head. I told myself I wanted to do what my dad does someday, help people solve problems.
When did you first join the company?
I did all kinds of odd jobs at Dawn during summers in college. I started out cleaning pots and pans in our research and development lab. The next year, I got to move up by working in the office taking customer orders. I’m lucky because by the time I got to college, I met a lot of people that just didn’t know what they wanted to do. However, when I graduated from Western Michigan University, I decided to move to Florida and told my dad I wasn’t going to work at Dawn right away. I had to go out and be successful on my own first, or fail on my own first. I never wanted to look in the mirror (while working at Dawn) and say to myself, ‘Are you here because of your last name or can you really do this?’ I had to build my own confidence in business first.
How did you build on that confidence?
I wanted to start in sales, specifically in medical sales. I did odd jobs in the meantime, including selling advertising for an organization in Florida. It was tough. I had just graduated from college at 23 years old. I was given 10 blocks a day to sell advertising by literally knocking on doors. I heard ‘no thank you’ a lot, but I learned persistence. Then, I landed my job in medical sales. One of the things I learned was the importance of knowing my product. I was selling critical things to doctors like medical implants. One day I was in a doctor’s office and a nurse actually said, ‘we’re going to put this implant in, do you want to join us in surgery?’ My face went white. I told her I didn’t want to go. She said, ‘but you’re a nurse.’ I said, ‘no, I’m a salesperson.’ That to me was a good acknowledgment of the fact that I knew my stuff. I was wildly successful in medical sales but after about four years, I knew I had learned what I needed to learn. That’s when I reached out to my Dad about future opportunities at Dawn.
Were there any challenges upon your return?
When I joined Dawn, I was the only woman in bakery sales in the state of Florida. When I would walk into the back of a bakery (to pitch products to sell), bakers basically didn’t know what to do with me. When I’d show them a product, I’d run it (through the equipment) myself and you could see the surprised looks on their faces. They’d make comments like, ‘you really do know how to bake.’ One particular baker made his own fillings for his products. He said to me, ‘Why do you keep coming back here? You’ve been here seven times, and I don’t have a need to buy anything from you.’ I said, ‘Someday you’re going to remember I talked to you about (Dawn’s bakery filling) products and how it would save you time and money as opposed to actually making it.’ Six months later he called me up. He was short a baker in his shop and just didn’t have the time to make his own filling. He said, ‘Can I have eight pails of the raspberry filling you were talking about?’ He tried the product and was sold. We later became good buddies, and he was a great customer for Dawn for many years.
What were some early leadership lessons for you?
You can’t do everything. There are things I need to know really, really well, but I also needed to recognize where I’m not going to excel. Believe me, nobody wants me to be the CFO. Surround yourself with talented people and then trust them to do the right thing. I truly believe trust is something that can be hard for family companies. I’ve worked with other families in business, and I think that’s something that clearly sets us apart. We have a servant leadership mentality. Our leadership is committed to listening to and serving the needs of our team members. We put their needs ahead of our own and recognize the valuable contributions they bring to our company. Our job is to ask them what they need so they can do the best job they can, remove any barriers and let them do what they are good at.
Also, right after I became a mom I also became an executive at Dawn. I went to a women in leadership seminar at Harvard and the woman professors there said, ‘Do not use these words in your life any longer: work life balance.’ They talked about prioritizing your life by being where you need to be when you need to be there. Sometimes that means prioritizing family functions, knowing that the work will get done later. Other times you’ll need to let your family know you’ll be busy doing something important for the short term. Ask for support. This takes the balance concern away. When everyone is on the same page as to timing and focus, we can understand what is occurring, why, and for how long. (That lesson) has made a big difference in my life.
What’s a major decision you’ve made at the company that has driven growth?
From a perspective on growing sales, sometimes you need to make difficult decisions to grow. When I became president of Dawn International, we had to shrink to become more profitable. Initially, we had a small team that was spread out across a large geography with variations in profitability. We commenced an analysis of market potential, competitive analysis and investment required to become profitable. It clearly led to the difficult decisions that included exiting some geographies and closing or selling some businesses. These were the difficult but necessary decisions for Dawn International to grow in the right markets to drive great profit. We took the company in less than two years from a negative situation to a positive situation and that business is now still our fastest growing business and our most profitable. Digital is going to be the next one. (Dawn launched an e-commerce platform this year for existing retail bakery customers across the U.S. that allows customers to place their orders online). We have about 10,000 SKUs in our product portfolio. Our sales team members cannot talk about more than a few at a time. Now, our customers can literally see and explore every item in Dawn’s portfolio. I am so proud because we actually launched prior to our launch date despite COVID-19, and we are delivering on the metrics.
How has COVID-19 affected the company?
We were considered an essential organization because we are a food supply, so all of our manufacturing locations continued. However, our demand dropped precipitously to almost half. Customers closed their doors at greater rates than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. We had to slow down and furlough some people. I’m happy to say everybody who was furloughed is now back. Luckily for us our demand is more in the V shape now. It was exhausting, but I’m incredibly proud of the work and the quick decision-making our team did to make sure our team members were safe and did everything we could to take care of the customers. For example, our teams did a lot of work to help our customers re-open with fun signage and resources to help them get back to business. We held training sessions to help our customers use social media to promote themselves and create awareness that they are open again. It’s also important that my teams — all 4,500 people in the organization — still stayed connected to our culture, our values, and to each other. During the first 10 weeks of the COVID crisis, Dawn went to weekly virtual townhall meetings to keep team members connected and informed. Now we have monthly meetings. One of the things I’ve been talking to my team members about is that in this time of our lives, we need to make sure we’re checking in with each other.
How do you work through issues that inevitably come up when it comes to working with your family? Are there any tactics the company abides by?
A non-family member board director has the responsibility for more frequent communication between the board of directors and myself outside of regular board meetings. Previously, if you were a family member that’s on the board and you made a statement, everybody in the organization questions, ‘Are you speaking as a board member or as a family member?’ That was getting a little confusing. We also have a family constitution. If you work for Dawn and want to become CEO in the future, so there aren’t any misunderstandings, there are (milestones you have to reach) in your career in order to get there. It’s the same (process) with the leadership team. You don’t want any misconceptions. Those things never end up good. We also have family meetings. The family constitution dictates how the family meetings are run and what we want to accomplish. We have what we call our family council, which is made up of family members who work in the business and family members who do not. It is a process that allows our family to gather questions, suggestions and input from the rest of the family and discuss them.
Do you have any advice for women who are want to be a CEO?
Follow your passion in work. Your life will be fulfilled and you will enjoy what you do every day. Take responsibility for your career. You need to know what the next step is (in your career) and be asking for it. There’s a lot of science around the fact that women don’t necessarily ask for what we want or the right pay rate. Surround yourself with talented people. That starts with figuring out what you’re good at and where your weaknesses are. Deploy people that are great strengths in your weaknesses. Then you’ve got to trust people. I trust implicitly the people that I surround myself with and I have a great leadership team. And of course, you’ve got to work hard.