At the Dawn of a New Century

By April Hall

Dawn Foods turns 100 this year with a third-generation woman at the helm. 

The Jones family is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dawn Foods this year, but they weren’t always bakers. The family entered the business in 1935, when patriarch Marlin Jones joined Dawn Donut Company as a bookkeeper.

Though the family didn’t found Dawn, now an international, multibillion-dollar company, they continue to grow the business under third-generation leadership.

Business partners Eugene Worden and Grover Lutz founded Century Baking in 1920 in Jackson, Mich., where the company is still headquartered today. Word soon spread to neighboring bakers that the bakery’s donuts were the best. Bakers went to Worden and Lutz and asked for their recipe, but they kept it secret. Instead, they sold a dry mix and renamed their business Dawn Donut Company, after the time of day donuts were baked.

Donut mix was packed into 100-pound sacks that were hand-sewn shut, as well as in barrels that held 200 pounds. The barrels were lined with a wax bag, and bakers would scoop out what they needed. The shipments would largely be delivered by horse or rail.

Dawn grew fast in the 1920s but was hit hard by the Depression. Small bakeries closed, and Dawn was getting back only 40 cents on every dollar it was owed by customers.

Marlin Jones joined the company in 1935, shortly after he married his high school sweetheart, Evelyne.

“It was a much, much smaller operation than it had been,” says Ron Jones, a second-generation owner. “Our father would put on his own ‘whites’ to work on the product line.”

Dawn was starting to get on its feet, but World War II hit, bringing with it wheat, sugar and lard rationing. The company negotiated directly with local farmers for its ingredients to avoid the supply limits.

When Dawn rebounded again, Marlin saw the value in the company and started using part of his paycheck to buy the company from the founders. The sale was completed in 1955 for a total of about $600,000. The company was lean after the war and positioned for rapid growth once again. Marlin invested in employees and trucks to deliver directly to customers. By 1957, the company was worth more than $1 million, according to its ledgers.

“He was a very loyal fellow,” Ron’s brother, Miles Jones, says about their father, Marlin. After Marlin bought the company, “on more than one occasion, he still helped production staff.

“When things got slow he didn’t want to lose good people, so he paid them to do other things,” such as cleaning up around the facility, painting or washing salesmen’s cars.

Bringing in the second generation
Ron started at Dawn Foods in 1960 after he earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting. Miles earned a bachelor’s with a triple major in psychology, economics and sociology and a minor in business. He then completed grad work in food science and started with Dawn in 1967.

Ron and Miles’ brother, Steve, was a choral conductor at a Michigan high school before he came into the business in 1972.

“He joined at a very serendipitous moment, when all of the brothers came together with different knowledge and talents,” Ron says. “I think that joining of the three different talents created, in no small way, a pathway for Dawn to grow.”

By 1977 the company was producing so many mixes that the family rebranded the business as Dawn Food Products.

A time for growth
When Marlin died unexpectedly in 1982, company revenues were $40 million. Marlin was financially conservative, so when he passed, the business was on solid ground. His sons took the reins and embarked on an aggressive acquisition campaign.

“My father would have been very uncomfortable with it,” Miles says. But the brothers were steadfast. When Ron’s daughter, Carrie Jones-Barber, became CEO in 2006, revenues were about $2 billion and the company was expanding into Europe. Updated revenues were unavailable.

Today the company has manufacturing operations in 57 locations and almost 5,000 employees. It offers dry mixes for an array of baked goods such as brownies and churros, including some that need a few ingredients and some that need only water to make a batter. Dawn also sells frozen pre-baked products like fully decorated cakes, which can be found in big-box stores. The company’s newest product is a mix to make a sourdough donut, the first of its kind on the market.

Sam Jones, 45, one of Miles’ sons, joined the company in 2003. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he went into environmental watershed science consulting. His father, however, was keen to have him join the family business and drew him in when there was an opening in environmental compliance. He now works in marketing for the company’s line of dry mixes.

Another of Miles’ sons, Aaron Jones, 48, marks 20 years with the company this year. He is currently senior manager of credit.

“I graduated in 1993 and was a serial entrepreneur,” Aaron says. “I always knew I wanted to work at Dawn. It was not a matter of if, but when.”

Independent leadership
Carrie has built a career on bringing in the right people to facilitate the company’s vision, whether in the for-profit or nonprofit arena.

Carrie worked outside of Dawn Foods after graduating college because she wanted to gain experience that would benefit the family business. A sales role at a pharmaceutical company, also family-owned, offered such an opportunity. When the company was bought by a larger corporation, she decided to join Dawn because, she says, she missed the camaraderie of a family business.

Carrie, who lived in Florida at the time, joined Dawn in a sales position.

“I was clearly the first woman in bakery sales in Florida,” she says, noting she was often the only woman in the room. “I don’t usually toot my horn, but I was really successful and got into new outlets like Publix and Walmart.”

She worked her way up to chief information officer and then president of Dawn International before becoming CEO.

When the company was planning to make another push into Europe, the owners and directors decided Carrie needed support. They tapped the president of the international division and chief strategy officer, Serhat Unsal, to join Carrie as co-CEO to push the plan.

“We worked really closely,” she says. “He was stronger in marketing than I was, for example.”

Unsal, a former managing director for Unilever, would fly around Europe making connections for the company and working on a strategic plan. Together, they made important changes in the North American organization as well. For example, distribution and manufacturing were combined to present a single face to consumers rather than having the functions split into two independent divisions.

“Once we made those changes, we didn’t need two CEOs anymore,” she says. Carrie is again the sole CEO and Unsal no longer works for Dawn Foods.

The process shows something about the company’s openness to fresh ideas and a lack of fear of losing family control.

Openness to new ideas is also reflected in Dawn Foods’ governance.

Ron is chairman emeritus and Miles became chairman last year. Dawn always had a board of directors, but into the early ’80s, the board was made up of family members. When the brothers started their bold expansion, they realized they needed outside expertise.

“We needed people with various backgrounds who were knowledgable to help make decisions because [the decisions are] much bigger than they used to be,” Miles says. At the time, Dawn was acquiring other baking companies that were two and three times larger than itself.

“One of the things we did that I think is really great — and I recommend this to other family companies — is to have a gap analysis of what our needs are moving forward,” Carrie says. “From there we sought out independent board members.”

The board supports not only Carrie, but also the entire executive team. Directors serve as mentors outside the boardroom and are available for dinners and other meetings.

Community support
As the company has grown, the family has created a foundation to give back to the communities that have been instrumental in their success.

Sarah Richmond, Steve’s daughter, worked for the company from 1993 to 2003 in marketing. A few years later, Carrie called her cousin to launch a corporate philanthropy program.

Sarah researched foundations extensively. She says she saw a commonality in the best ones.

“All privately held corporate foundations are involved in areas that also relate to their business,” Sarah says. “They have symbiotic relationships with nonprofits they fund.”

The Dawn Foods Foundation focuses on hunger prevention and education. The foundation focuses its funding on the communities where the company has a brick-and-mortar footprint.

Hunger prevention programs include packing backpacks distributed to children at the end of the week to ensure they are fed through the weekend, when they aren’t receiving school breakfast or lunch. The foundation also funds shelters that feed families by making sure their kitchens are well-equipped.

Education programs include a concentration on the fundamental skill of literacy as well as support for vocational baking programs.

Since its inception, the foundation has been managed outside of the company. This year Sarah will bring the program in-house and transfer it to a corporate giving program that will give her more latitude in decision making.

Celebrating a century
It’s no small role being the CEO of family business that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary. Carrie says ongoing meetings and planning have prepped the company for a solid six months of celebration, January through June 5, the official anniversary date.

The Family That Bakes Together

Family members who grew up in a baking company are sure to have sweet memories. That’s certainly true for the Jones family, who grew up around Dawn Foods.

“The one thing that I’ll never forget is the smell,” says Sam Jones, a third-generation family member in the business. “You get used to it on your dad’s jacket, [in] the car to the plant in Jackson, Mich. It smells like vanilla and butter and donuts.”
He also remembers the “toys” his dad would bring home from work — barrels.

“He would bring home 200-pound barrels, and we would treat them like toys in the basement. We would roll them around and just break everything in the basement.”

Sarah Richmond, Sam’s cousin, has witnessed the baking skills of both the generation before her and the one after her.
“When I was born, Dad was already working at Dawn Foods,” she says of her father, Steve Jones. He had been a choral director for years before joining the family firm’s advertising and marketing team. “Music was more of a hobby at that time.”
Sarah had a science project and her father was excited, suggesting, “Let’s do it about yeast.”

The two decided to make a regular loaf of bread and an unleavened loaf.

“It was a brick,” she recalls of the loaf that was supposed to rise. “The measuring cup we thought was a two-cup measure was a four-cup measure.

“That’s when I learned I needed to go to Uncle Miles down the street to help me with anything baking.”

Sarah’s youngest daughter, Lyla Grace, at age 10 is leaning toward Great Uncle Miles’ baking talents.

“She loves to bake. She comes by it naturally,” and she likes to watch children’s baking competitions, Sarah says. Lyla Grace recently spent four hours creating a six-layered rainbow checkerboard cake.

Aaron Jones recalls baking with his dad, Miles, and says it’s one of his proudest memories.

“I clearly remember making chocolate chip cookies with my dad from scratch and comparing the butter versus shortening textures,” he says.

Aaron went on to work in the quality assurance lab in high school.

“It’s something in our DNA, for sure,” he says. — April Hall

Though the centennial year is 2020, Carrie started celebrating in December when she received her service emblem recognizing her 35-year career at Dawn Foods during the company’s annual kickoff meeting.

Other commemorations will include spotlighting Dawn’s customers’ dedication to their vocation through “Thank You to Bakers,” a promotion through social media and other channels. A charitable component of the program is “#donutsforgood.” The company is encouraging its baker partners to share the work they do for their communities by using the hashtag on social media. Ten bakers will be selected through a random drawing, and the charities of their choice will each receive $5,000 in their names.

The next 100 years
Carrie says it is her responsibility to drive succession planning. There are ongoing conversations, but there are no firm plans yet.

Ron and Miles retain offices at headquarters, but Steve passed away in 1995 and their sister, Janet, who never worked in the business, died in 2005. Four members of the third generation are directly involved with the business: Carrie, Aaron, Sam and Sarah. They are working together to decide what would be best for Dawn moving into its second century.

They all say there are no expectations as to who is next in line to run the company, though there are enough qualified family members that management will stay in their hands.

“We’ve talked about it, career path planning,” Aaron says. “If I were the right fit [for CEO], I would not shy away.”
His brother, Sam, agrees. “I want to have a strong understanding of the business itself, get to know the folks in the business.

“We need to make sure we continue to grow the company and where I land, I land.”

Education has begun for the fourth generation as a portion of their family meetings. A family constitution looks at the “emotional side” of being in the business family and stands as a “code of conduct,” Aaron says.

The constitution includes a vision statement, mission statement and an employment policy. The third-generation cousin consortium feels the experience they’ve had outside of Dawn allowed them to bring special skills to the company.

There are 17 members of the fourth generation, but none of them work in the business yet.

“Carrie’s daughter is a prodigy, amazing,” Aaron says. She’s one of the oldest of G4 at 17. “Hopefully, she comes into the business.”                                                              

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Article categories: 
March/April 2020

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