Irish woman finds sweet spot at heart of Mars

Revels-lover Fiona Dawson has climbed close to the top of Mars, the ultimate global family business

Fiona Dawson:  has video conferencing facilities at home

Fiona Dawson: has video conferencing facilities at home

 

Mars is one of the largest and most private food companies in the world. It is owned by its founding family and it goes back over a century to when Frank C Mars began making butter cream candies in his kitchen in Tacoma in the US state of Washington.

Many in corporate America would brag about this longevity. Not Mars. It may be one of the largest private companies in the US, but it doesn’t talk much. Little information is in the public domain, apart from the fact that it has six divisions, 11 billion-dollar brands, a turnover of $33 billion, 75,000 employees and more than 70 manufacturing plants across the globe.

The maker of the Mars bar (as well as Twix, M&Ms, Wrigleys gum, Whiskas, Pedigree Chum and Uncle Ben’s rice, among others) may be reluctant to share information with outsiders, but within the walls, big screens constantly display financial and performance information to employees, who can munch on free sweets while digesting the latest results.

It’s also acceptable to snack on company products during meetings, while those in non-manufacturing jobs can bring their dogs to work, all of which suggests Mars is less uptight than it might be painted – a notion reinforced by the warmth with which Dublin-born Mars veteran Fiona Dawson talks about the company.

And she should know. Dawson has worked for Mars for 27 years. In January this year, she became global president for food, drinks and multisales, the company’s fourth-largest division.

“Working for Mars feels like being part of a small family business as it’s very non- hierarchical. But because of its size, you can pretty much find your career path within, whether you want to be a specialist, a generalist or to work internationally. It’s not exactly collegiate but it’s a very supportive environment where you are encouraged to develop your talents,” Dawson says.

“I know the company is perceived as secretive, but that’s not my experience,” she adds. “We believe in open communications and talk about the good and the bad. I think some of the ‘mystery’ is explained by the fact that the Mars family is phenomenally humble, very egalitarian and not at all interested in being in public view. But if you work for the company, they are very accessible. I could pick up the phone and speak to pretty much any of them at any time.”

Dawson’s new job covers 28 markets, 11 manufacturing sites, more than 2,000 employees and familiar brands such as Dolmio, Suzi Wan and Royco.

The role is based in Brussels, but Dawson lives in England with her husband and two sons, and spends nearly 70 per cent of her time travelling. It’s a gruelling schedule but one that seems to energise Dawson, whose day starts well before 6am walking Roly the cocker spaniel. (Yes, he’s called after a certain restaurant in Ballsbridge.)

Dawson is the daughter of former Late Late Show executive producer Adrian Cronin. Had she followed her own inclinations, she might well have become a professional musician, but her father advised her to keep music as a hobby and do something else for a living.

She met her husband while studying economics and social science in Trinity College and worked for Mars in Ireland before moving to the UK as sales director in 2001. Such long service is not unusual among “martians” (as employees call themselves). Staff turnover in the US for example is around 5 per cent.

Prior to taking up her new job, Dawson spent nearly 10 years as president of global retail and Mars chocolate UK, a job not without its sweet spots.

“I was renowned for always ‘stealing’ the toffee Revels, and one day, much to my delight, I was presented with a box of toffee-only Revels,” she says.

While Dawson may admit to a penchant for toffee Revels, she is well aware that her industry is in the firing line when it comes to the public debate about unhealthy eating and growing obesity levels.

“There are tensions around the health/ nutrition debate and I don’t think we should shy away from them. I think it’s incumbent on us to provide transparency so people know what they’re eating,” she says.

“It’s easier to educate consumers about chocolate, as most people understand that it’s first and foremost a treat. But when we look at the broader food industry, it’s the hidden fats, sugars and salt that are of real concern. Most people know what’s in chocolate, but with some food products it’s very unclear and some within the industry are guilty of putting so-called health claims on products that mislead consumers.”

Dawson says Mars has developed a set of global nutrition criteria that it is using to improve the composition of its products. It has already greatly reduced the amount of salt in its products (well ahead of its competitors she says). Reducing sugar is its next crusade, although Dawson concedes this is not without its challenges.

“We need to be very thoughtful about how we reformulate so we don’t simply take out natural sugars and replace them with something that’s not yet quite proven within the industry,” she says. “We also have to be mindful of the very big difference between naturally occurring and artificial sugars. This needs to be approached responsibly and cautiously. But there are practical steps the food industry can take without being too evangelical or nanny state about it. It’s astonishing how many people follow recipes on the backs of packets, so that’s an opportunity to say that adding extra vegetables or switching to wholegrain rice (easier said than done with kids, I know) are better choices.”

Dawson is totally committed to making healthy food available to all. “I get very frustrated where healthy options are seen as premium or niche,” she says. “The big question for me as leader of our food business is how do we make healthy, tasty food affordable for everyone? Our R&D people really care about food and doing the right thing. They’re not motivated by the lowest cost or cheapest price. They’re more interested in designing value in than taking cost out.”

Autonomy

Dawson will discuss strategic issues with her boss, chief executive Grant Reid, (a non-Mars family member), but otherwise she calls her own shots.

“Mars doesn’t operate like a big ship. It’s more of a flotilla and, without traditional shareholder pressures, we can take longer to do things or can take a stand if we feel strongly about something,” she says.

“For example, we were the first company to decide not to advertise to children under the age of 12. Some of the things we’ve done almost look like sales prevention, but they were the right thing to do. We’re prepared to take a near-term risk for a long-term benefit.”

Asked what keeps her awake at night, Dawson hesitates. “It’s usually something to do with people,” she says. “It’s critical to have the right people in your team, both for you and the business. But sometimes, while you may really like someone, they’re not performing or they’re not enjoying the job and you have to tackle it. I have rarely heard anyone say ‘I acted too quickly’ when it comes to decisions around people. They usually say ‘I should have acted sooner’. You can be hard on the issue and soft on the people but you have to face it.”

Dawson is a member of the Women’s Business Council in the UK and is keen for the corporate world to be more respectful of women’s career choices. “I’m passionate not just about gender diversity but also about a more inclusive business culture.

“My frustration with quotas is that I don’t just want a ‘tick box’ approach. Women don’t just deserve a seat at the table, they must also have a voice,” she says.

“A lot of women choose to give up work at a certain time in their careers and I think we should be able to accommodate that,” she adds. “If you think how long people are working for now, then women coming back into the workforce having had their families are a very rich source of knowledge and expertise that should be harnessed.

“For the record, over 50 per cent of our managers in the UK are female, but really it’s a Trojan horse talking about gender because it’s about a lot more than being male or female. It’s also about inclusivity and diversity and getting a broader group.

“You don’t want diversity for diversity’s sake. You must have common values and a common goal. That’s when diversity will yield the most creative solutions. I couldn’t imagine having a whole management team of ‘Fionas’ sitting around the table. It would be a very dull place to be.”

The story of Mars comes with all of the drama of a good TV series right down to a falling out between the father and son who brought us the Milky Way and the Snickers bar (which incidentally was called after the family’s favourite horse). Following the father and son split, Mars jnr left for Europe, where he worked for Nestlé and Tobler before striking out on his own to develop the Mars bar and M&Ms.

Finally, following decades of inter-family wrangling, the US and British businesses were merged in the 1960s.

Dawson clearly finds Mars a great place to “work, rest and play” (as the old slogan has it) and her impressive track record was key in her becoming the first woman to win the coveted business leaders award from the UK-based industry bible, the Grocer.

“Being recognised by my peers in the industry was one of my biggest career highlights. And, of course, hosting the queen in Slough was very cool too,” she says.

“Not making decisions” is the biggest crime a manager can commit in Dawson’s view. “There’s a lot of trust in you as a leader. Even if you get it wrong and have to course correct afterwards, you have to call it and execute it efficiently – assuming you have listened to all the points of view and checked your blind spot for what you might be missing.

“Mars has a ‘feedback’ culture that can be a little daunting, but the focus is on self-development and strengthening relationships, either on an individual or team basis. As a result, people are usually very open with their views and it really helps you raise your game.

“This is probably going to sound corny but we have something called the five principles of Mars – quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom – and if you’re struggling with a decision and you apply the principles you will never go far wrong.”

CV Name: Fiona Dawson Position: Global president food, drinks and multisales, Mars Age: 49 Lives: Berkshire, England Hobbies: Cooking, walking, listening to music, watching rugby (her sons play).

Something we might expect: She has video conferencing facilities at home. Something that might surprise: She’s an accomplished flute player and a school governor.

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