Dawn Sweeney: 2014 Female Executive of the Year
National Restaurant Assn.
Each year, as a successor to the Griffin Report’s “Women of Influence in the Food Industry” feature in the February issue of The Griffin Report, we select and showcase the Female Executive of the Year.
Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Assn., has been selected for this year’s honor in recognition of her continuing contributions and innovative strategic planning to benefit the National Restaurant Association, its members and the food service industry in general.
She has a lot on her plate including health care, minimum wage, immigration reform, menu-labeling and children’s nutrition, her affiliation with the Save the Children organization and the Child Obesity 180 initiative to name just a few. She has traveled all around the country, meeting with state associations and is quite personable and easy to talk to. Here is her biography and she also addressed some of the issues facing her and the NRA in a question and answer format.
The membership of the NRA includes quick service, fast casual, managed foodservice, casual and fine dining – along with manufacturers, suppliers and distributors. The American restaurant industry is composed of nearly one million restaurant and food service outlets and over 13 million employees. Since taking the helm at the end of 2007, Ms. Sweeney has led the association in a wide-range of policy issues, while offering services and products that promote the industry and help individual operators and large multi-unit companies succeed.
Ms., Sweeney has realigned the association’s priorities and structure to strengthen its core operations, including consolidating its foundation around a mission to develop a strong workforce and build the next generation of industry leaders. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s major goal is to educate students on the restaurant business through the ProStart program – running in high schools nationwide – and to provide educational scholarship
Ms. Sweeney has led the association to several major legislative victories, including achieving federal legislation on menu-labeling, and has launched the first-of-its-kind children’s menu initiative – Kids LiveWell. Under her leadership, the association’s annual trade show – the largest restaurant and hospitality industry tradeshow in the U.S. – has seen growth both in revenue and impact.
Before joining the National Restaurant Association, Ms. Sweeney was president and chief executive officer of AARP Services, the wholly owned taxable subsidiary of AARP. She grew annual revenues from $175 million to $785 million during her tenure – serving 11 million AARP members annually. Her 25+ years of marketing, advocacy and policy experience also include leadership positions at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a membership organization of consumer-owned electric utilities, and the International Dairy Foods Association, the trade association for the nation’s dairy foods industry, where she played a major role in the launch of the “milk moustache” advertising campaign.
Ms. Sweeney has been named one of the perennial top association chief executive officers in the country for the past several years. She serves on the boards the U.S. Travel Association and the Women’s Foodservice Forum, and is an active member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Committee of 100, the International Women’s Forum, and the Committee of 200, an international network of female executives.
She is also a charter member of Child Obesity 180, an initiative of private, public, non-profit and academic leaders committed to helping prevent childhood obesity through evidence-based initiatives.
She is a native of Maine, a graduate of Colby College, and earned her MBA at George Washington University. Sweeney lives in northern Virginia with her husband and teenage son.
Some of her awards include: “CEO Update’s Perennial Top CEO” in 2013 “50 Most Powerful People in Food” by The Daily Meal in February 2013 and February 2014 and The Top 50 Power List” and Top 50 Catalysts by Nation’s Restaurant News.
Questions & Answers
What is an average workday like for you?
Like in Lake Wobegon – they are all “above average”! Seriously, I am not sure there is such a thing as an “average day” in our business. Representing an industry as huge and as diverse as the restaurant industry means my days vary quite a bit. When I’m in Washington, I may join our team for a conversation with members of the media or policy-makers up on the Hill or at the White House, review year-to-date accomplishments and challenges with our board officers over the phone, support our Foundation team in developing capacity and impact through our ProStart program, have breakfast and/or lunch and/or dinner with another trade association executive or someone with a different perspective on the world than I have (I go out to eat a lot!), work on a speech I have coming up, or review some of the projects under development with our staff. When in Chicago with our team there, we are building the “next generation” of products, services and experiences for our growing industry. The very next day will be dramatically different. The variety is a pleasure – no one in my job could ever get bored!
What kind of things do you learn from your group visits?
I love meeting with restaurant professionals! Every exchange shows me another facet of the industry. The extraordinary creativity and drive that fuels the millions of careers in our industry is deeply inspirational to me. And I love sharing those stories with people I meet who are not affiliated with foodservice. Not many people understand what a juggernaut the industry is in our national economy. While everyone may have a favorite restaurant, not everyone understands the restaurant industry.
How would you describe your management style?
Building relationships and coming to understand other peoples’ perspectives and points of view have definitely propelled me in my own career. I am inspired to do my best work by surrounding myself with a diverse and opinioned group of leaders, and working hard to help knit them into a highly functioning team.
What kind of challenges did you conquer to get where you are today?
That isn’t really an easy question. Some of what may be defined as challenges I truly see as strength-builders. I grew up in rural Maine in a loving family with a very strong work ethic, that gave me a rock-solid belief in myself and my abilities. I’ve made a few hard choices that involved taking a career risk – jumping into the new – and those risks have always been worth it. Along the way, I have always gravitated to the big challenges – the jobs that everyone didn’t always want to take on but the jobs that absolutely needed to be done. I love where I am today and I know that the lessons learned from any character-building “challenges” are in large part what got me here. Those lessons, as well as a ton of people who gave me opportunities to succeed, and fail, along the way.
Who were your mentors in your professional life; what did you learn from them; and which people do you see as role models and why?
My parents were my first and most impactful role models. They taught me the value of good and hard work and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams. I’ve also had some really remarkable bosses – and have worked with some fantastic board officers – who have “walked the talk” throughout their careers. Behaving with personal integrity and honoring your word are two things that all of my mentors have lived by.
What are your hobbies and or things that make you happy?
First and foremost is my family. I’ve been married to a wonderful man for nearly 20 years and we have a teenaged son who is a remarkable young man. I love the times we get to spend together – knowing that our son will be out on his own soon enough. Also, I am a voracious reader, always have been. And I enjoy hiking, biking and lots of outdoor activities.
What are your predictions on what will happen to the top three issues facing the NRA: A. Minimum Wage. B. Health Care. C. Immigration Reform
Our industry plays a huge role in the U.S. economy as a job creator. One in three Americans had their first job in food service and we employ fully 10 percent of the nation’s workforce currently. Providing these jobs as the “first rung on the ladder of opportunity” is critical – both for those who choose to make a career in our industry, as well as for those who learn valuable skills that they take with them throughout their lives.
Significant increases in the minimum wage negatively impact restaurants’ opportunities to provide jobs and growth opportunities for individuals. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report recently, concluding that by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, there would be an accompanying loss of at least 500,000 jobs. Restaurant owners operate on extraordinarily slim margins of 3-4 percent on average, so we are concerned both about job loss and the impact on upward mobility within the industry, tied to a sizable wage increase. There is a great deal of activity on the wage issue at the federal, state and local levels, and we will remain vigilant in advocating the industry’s viewpoint and concerns.
Regarding health care, we recognize that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) remains one of the greatest challenges restaurant operators will ever face. The ACA is causing tremendous uncertainty for our members, and is likely to impose significant cost and administrative burdens on businesses of all sizes.
The NRA has been working since before the law passed and throughout the implementation process for maximum flexibility for restaurants under the law. As we work with agencies to provide regulatory flexibility, we also urge Congress to make changes to alleviate the costs and regulatory burdens for employers – and ensure that the law does not harm employees whose hours and pay may be cut back as employers struggle to absorb new costs and paperwork requirements.
The House passed a measure in April to change the ACA’s definition of full-time to 40 hours a week, from the current 30. We have provided leadership on this issue for the last several years and were very gratified to see this move forward. There’s also growing bipartisan support in Congress for measures to make it easier to determine who’s considered a “large employer” under the ACA, and scale back or simplify the complicated reporting requirements due to hit many employers starting in 2016.
On immigration, the NRA played a major role in generating support for the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year. We will continue to work to encourage action in the House to pass sensible immigration policy that will bring certainty to America’s workers and employers.
While this is an election year –creating additional challenges in passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill – we are working with House leaders to support measures that offer a clear path to legalization for otherwise law-abiding people working and contributing to the nation’s economy; a simple, reliable federal employment verification system; and improved border security that does not hinder legitimate travel and tourism.
Other than those three issues, what are your goals for the coming year at the NRA?
We’re committed to educating our customers, the media, and lawmakers – everyone – about the restaurant industry. You’ve seen the news stories that imply that the industry is composed of dead-end jobs that keep people in poverty. Those stories just aren’t true and we cannot sit back and let those misleading characterizations stand.
We build careers in this industry. Life-long careers – not just entry-level, but sustaining-level. Allowing millions to buy homes, put kids through college, and, yes, start and maintain businesses. The restaurant industry opens the door for anyone to work hard and achieve the American Dream. The nation needs us to keep doing that. We want to keep doing that. So we have a campaign going to share the true story of our industry wherever possible. I appreciate the opportunity to do that here!