Baking a Recipe for Talent Success

Dawn Foods' CHRO explains how the company is staying competitive in the war for talent.
By: | August 7, 2018 • 4 min read

Dawn Foods began nearly a century ago with two bakers and a donut recipe. Today, the baked-goods company produces more than 4,000 products, employs nearly 5,000 people and operates 57 locations around the world. As the company has grown and diversified, so has the bakery business and the market it serves. Today in the U.S., Hispanic and Asian customers represent a growing share of its customer base, while an increasing number of consumers are opting for artisanal-style baked goods vs. the traditional box of donuts or chocolate cake that looks and tastes the same whether it’s sold in Portland, Me., or Portland, Ore. Staying on top of these trends means the company can’t rely on the same practices that’ve made it successful in the past.

“The demographics of our customers continue to evolve in terms of race, gender and generation,” says Stevens J. Sainte-Rose, Dawn Foods’ chief HR and transformation officer. In order to keep pace and continue growing its business, he says, the company needs to ensure that its employee base reflects this diversity.

Sainte-Rose, an HR veteran of consumer companies including Walgreens and Coca-Cola, is helping the Jackson, Mich.-based company adapt its strategies to the digital era while attracting the talent it needs so it can continue evolving with its customers. In the following Q&A, he explains how he’s going about doing that.

What do you see as the top people-related challenges facing Dawn Foods?

I joined the company in January this year and spent a lot of time speaking to other executives, our board and our customers and I’ve gotten a very holistic view of where we are right now. There are four things we need to do: We need to build off our strengths while getting even faster, leverage our networks and our internal collaboration, build multiple touchpoints with our customers, and finally, evolve our talent base and leadership to be more reflective of our customers. At the end of the day, what will enable all this is a digital mindset: Part of my role here as chief transformation officer is to change the way we drive our supply chain and our approach to customers and be better able to support them from a digital standpoint.


What are you doing to help Dawn Foods compete for the talent it will need to carry all this out?

From a recruitment perspective, we want to be able to attract talent that lives in, or wants to live in, major cities, so we’re looking at opening a second headquarters in or near a major city, kind of like what Amazon is doing. We’re looking at five to six locations, Chicago and the Detroit/Ann Arbor area among them. Jackson will always be our headquarters, it holds a lot of tradition for us, but at the same time we recognize that if we’re going to become faster, more diverse and more networked, we’ve got to be where the action is, or at least have a footprint where the action is. We’re thinking of starting up a new digital arm of the business and we’d put it in the second headquarters location, starting off with maybe 40 or 50 people located there, and then build from there.

How are you planning to compete for diverse talent?

We’re setting up employee-resource groups and women-in-leadership programs, and we’re relying on our millennial employees to serve as a sounding board for our executive team in order to get their perspectives and really building a multigenerational culture within the company. We’re translating our recruitment materials into different languages. It’s important that we reflect the diversity of our customers: the Hispanic market in the U.S. is growing rapidly and our top salesperson is Hispanic—he’s responsible for 50 percent of the growth we’ve had in the Atlanta market. We’ve got Korean and Cambodian donut shops opening up across the country—our No. 1 salesperson for opening new accounts has really helped us expand our business in the Cambodian market, and he’s Cambodian. So there are a lot of growth opportunities and we need people linked to those markets who can build and maintain relationships with our customers in those markets. We’re transforming to a digital platform that will enable our small-business customers to put in orders themselves rather than going through an account manager, which means the account manager will be able to spend more time helping our customers grow their business—and grow ours in the process.

What are you doing to compete for millennial employees?

One, we’re rebuilding our rewards structure to make it more fit for purpose. For millennials, we’re looking to implement a program that will let them save up money to pay off their school loans, much like the way a defined-contribution plan works. They’ve told us they can’t even think about saving for retirement before paying off their school loans. We’re also offering more flexibility, such as remote working and flexible work schedules, and we’re planning a long-term incentive plan. We’ve got a legacy of entrepreneurial spirit here, and we’re looking to build on that to attract millennials by positioning our company as a place where you can build a legacy.

What changes are you making to Dawn Foods’ recruitment processes?

We’re giving candidates the opportunity to experience a virtual “day in the life” of the job they’re applying for. So, if you go on our website to apply, you not only have the option of listening to people talk about the experience of working for us, but an opportunity to see an actual Dawn plant, distribution center or office, to see a day in the life of the job they’re applying for. It gives them more information so they can better prepare for the interview and gets them more excited about coming in and working for us, which means we have a better chance of converting applicants to new hires. And on the back end, we’re re-setting our onboarding programs to better train folks for what they’ll be doing. At our distribution centers, we’re working with local nonprofits to hire more people with disabilities. That’s something we did at Walgreens and these folks turned out to be some of our very best employees. We’re also continuing to reach out to veterans—many of our truck drivers, for example, are vets.


You were a long-time executive at Coca-Cola, which is renowned for its HR leadership. What were your biggest takeaways from your time there?

At Coke I was the HR partner to our marketing and R&D functions, and one of my biggest takeaways from there is that HR is like marketing: we study people and we provide them with what they’re looking for, only we do it internally while marketing does it externally. Most people, when they’re being recruited, know your brand but not your culture. Then, once they come work for you, they understand your culture and forget about your brand. The upshot is, your branding campaign and your employer-value proposition cannot be two different things, they have to be one and the same. Here at Dawn Foods, we call it Dawn 2.0. The fundamental philosophy around recruiting top talent is that people want to know, are you living what you’re selling, from a cultural-transparency standpoint? On the flip side, team members want to know, Is what I’m doing making a difference to our customers?

Another thing that’s very important is that people will follow leaders not by their words but through their actions. That requires having a CEO and executive team that demonstrates, through their actions, consistency with what we’re trying to drive through our values and culture. A high-potential person will not stay if they see inconsistencies there.

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor for talent acquisition at Human Resource Executive. He oversees coverage of talent acquisition and recruiting and also edits the weekly Recruiting Trends Bulletin e-newsletter and its associated website, A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]