Interview: Dawn Foods CEO Carrie Jones-Barber

As Dawn Foods celebrates its 30th anniversary of trading in the UK, chief executive officer Carrie Jones-Barber tells British Baker why being a family business has been key to its success

From an early age, Dawn Foods CEO Carrie Jones-Barber knew she wanted to find solutions to people’s problems.

Just months away from celebrating its 100th anniversary, the US-based business aims to solve bakers’ problems with products ranging from mixes through to finished goods, including cakes, cookies and muffins.

But its origins lie in one particular treat – the doughnut.

“We started as a doughnut bakery in Jackson, Michigan, and the doughnuts were so popular, other bakers came asking if they could have the formula,” explains Jones-Barber. “The owners were smart enough to say no, but said they would make them into a mix and then sell them the mix. That’s how we got started.”

The business – named for the time of day bakers work – was bought by Jones-Barber’s grandfather Marlin Jones. Still owned by the Jones family, it now employs 5,000 people and operates across the US, and Canada, EMEAP, Europe and Latin America.

When British Baker meets Jones-Barber, she is visiting the company’s UK site at Evesham in Worcestershire to mark the business’ 30th anniversary of trading on these shores. Dawn’s expansion into the UK followed the business supplying customers including Millie’s Cookies with goods imported from the US.

“We moved into many of our international markets in the same way,” explains Jones-Barber. “We had a customer we were shipping to and, as the business grew, we sent some of our sales teams over here to look at how we could expand into the market. At a certain volume, we put assets on the ground and invest.”

With Brits showing an increasing appetite for American food, Dawn acquired Millie’s Cookies and its operation in Perivale, London in 1989. The company bought the Evesham site following discussions with then-owners Evedale Foods about blending Dawn mixes under licence for the UK market, and relocated the Perivale operation to Evesham.

At that time, the company had just two Hobart 800 mixers, a Fedco depositor, two small convection ovens and a single rack oven. Today, it operates 24-hour production at Evesham and employs around 200 people, producing dry mixes, wet products and frozen finished or semi-finished sweet bakery items – many reflecting the business’ American heritage.

From those beginnings, the UK operation was the springboard for Dawn’s expansion into Europe.

“The UK business has developed phenomenally,” says Jones-Barber. “It is a great market for us from an authentic American standpoint and also from the products we make here for other European businesses. It just continues to grow and grow.

“When I come back here, I see there are still opportunities for us, which continues to fuel our appetite for investment,” she adds.

Most recently, that investment has meant the installation of a new automated dry filling and packing system at Evesham, opened by Jones-Barber and Steven Verweij, Dawn’s president of Europe and AMEAP (pictured). Further investment could also include acquisitions.

“Our strategy is to grow in Europe – it is a great market for us,” she says. “The team know we have to develop organically, but we will also grow through acquisitions. This could absolutely include acquisitions in the UK.”

Digital will also be a focus, with big plans for next year. Jones-Barber declines to give details, but insists the activity will have as big an impact on the business organisation as going international did. She does, however, confirm it will be customer-facing.

“We try as much as we can to start with the customer first in everything we do. If we are doing something they don’t need, then we are wasting our money and it won’t provide a solution they are looking for.”

Jones-Barber learned about putting the customer first as a child. “There was a lot of conversation at home about the baking industry,” she says. “When you are passionate about something, you naturally discuss it.”

She recalls visiting the Dawn offices and seeing her dad, uncles and grandfather working. “Dad was the go-to person – and my grandfather before that – and I said, at a very young age, that I wanted to be able to help people solve their problems. That’s how I saw my dad; people would come up to him and talk to him, and I knew he was the person people looked to for solutions.”

While she wanted to join the business – and had spent summers working part-time at Dawn – she didn’t make the leap immediately. On the day she graduated, she left Dawn’s home state of Michigan for Florida. “I wanted to build my confidence or fail on my own,” she explains.

She rejoined the business a few years later, after Dawn bought mix and icing production facilities from Bessire & Company and was looking to expand into Florida.

At that time, Jones-Barber was working in pharmaceutical sales, and it made sense for her to enter Dawn in a sales role: “Starting in sales was easily the best route for me to become the CEO eventually.”

Moreover, working in sales had taught her valuable lessons. “I learned to always be authentic, to understand what your customers’ needs are, to learn everything you can about the business and your products, as well as how you are going to distribute them.”

She also learned to recognise “that the door is going to get shut in your face but you’ve got to go back”.

'We still have to make money, we still have to be profitable, but our long-range planning gives us the ability to make those investments that Wall Street wouldn’t accept.'

Jones-Barber believes spending time outside the company was one of the best moves she made. “It is now part of our family constitution that people have to go outside the organisation for three years before they can work at Dawn.”

While many family members work at Dawn, Jones-Barber isn’t pushing her teenage daughter to do so.

“My daughter and I love to bake together – we made a confetti cake last weekend – but there is no pressure on her to come into the business. I just want her to be happy.”

However, Jones-Barber is clear about how important family is to the business. “Being a family business gives us advantages, without a doubt,” she explains, adding this is reflected in how Dawn’s decisions are made for the long term. “We still have to make money, we still have to be profitable, but our long-range planning gives us the ability to make those investments that Wall Street wouldn’t accept.”

Dawn’s origins as a family bakery business are also reflected in

Jones-Barber’s attitude to work, and her advice for anyone looking to enter the industry.

“Baking is a great business, but if you are not passionate about it, then it can become extremely difficult,” she says. On the flipside, for those who are passionate about it:  “You can work long hours, you can work long days because, at the end, you know you love what you are doing.”

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