5 Intriguing Association Leaders: Dawn Sweeney

By: Summer Faust

Many association professionals are going above and beyond in their work, but here are five leaders who are setting the bar with innovative initiatives and goals that will better their organizations and their communities.

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":

The Political Player

Dawn Sweeney, 51
President and CEO, National Restaurant Association, Washington, DC
Worked in associations for 30 years.

Dawn Sweeney wears many hats: fast-food drive-through operator, hostess, and the first woman to serve as the National Restaurant Association's CEO. Sweeney says she believes that taking on the roles of the members she serves is crucial to do her job. "It really adds a huge amount of context to the job that I do every day, to understand how employees approach these challenges and how the companies themselves work through what is a very demanding job," says Sweeney.

In addition to greeting restaurant patrons, Sweeney has raised the profile of the association outside of Washington, DC, implemented a five-year strategic plan, and helped NRA become more politically proactive. Sweeney's advocacy efforts resulted in interchange-fee reform and the national nutrition disclosure included in healthcare reform law.

Associations Now: What are some of the ways your organization has raised its profile outside of DC?

Sweeney: One of the things that I think is so unique about the restaurant industry is that we have hundreds, in some cases thousands or even tens of thousands of restaurants in every single congressional district in this country. … It makes it unique and important for us, as much as anyone, to get outside of DC and take advantage of the full opportunity that represents. We as an organization are very active. The board, our staff, and myself, we participate in a lot of industry conferences.

And one of the most, frankly, exciting things I think that we do is every year we hold a national competition … called the Pro Start Invitational in which young people from across the country compete in a state and national competition to get to this national invitational to showcase their skills in both culinary and management of restaurants. It's a very inspiring thing, so that's a very important piece of work that we do in conjunction with the 50 state restaurant associations across the country.

Can you explain the purpose of your five-year strategic plan?

We have a five- or six-point plan that outlines our approach. ... We want to be more proactive in chasing public policy, in our engagement in government affairs ... and really working toward being part of the solution for what, in our theory, is a very complex issue that our country is facing [and] that the restaurant industry can really play an important role in helping to shape. …

[We want to] strengthen the identity and reputation of the industry at large. Everyone knows there's a financial- services industry. Everybody understands there's a defense industry. But there's not a sense of a restaurant industry, per se, and in part I think it's because the industry itself is so diverse. But in part it's because we've never really created a campaign or an understanding of this industry.

Why is it important to you to take on day-in-the-life roles of your members?

In addition to going to companies and learning about the financial model of the industry and the economic drivers and some of the policy implications and regulatory issues and things of that nature, I also decided it would be helpful to actually go and work in restaurants.

And when I started doing it, it was with the intention to have a better understanding of what it takes to run a successful restaurant and what are the impediments or challenges or benefits that NRA could help either remove or add to help improve restaurant success, as that is one of our major goals. And I've [had the] opportunity of working in the back of the house, in the front of the house, and doing everything from the drive-through window to the fryer to the hostess to the prep cook to the—well, I never was a chef. But I chopped up vegetables and showed up at seven in the morning for the lunch shift to prep the food and things of that nature.

It's been marvelous. And now I've gotten to the point where I've got a whole long list of folks who are willing for me to come out and spend some time with them, and I'm looking at probably the next two years pretty well covered.

Online Extra: Extended Interview With Dawn Sweeney

A big issue my organization is facing is: How to help our members navigate successfully through the healthcare legislative regulatory changes that are on their way.

My plan to tackle it is: We have developed a very aggressive strategy to be able to participate in and shape the regulatory process. We did similarly in the legislative process as well. Our goal is to be able to offer affordable healthcare options that meet a wide variety of needs in our industry given the particular type of employment demographics that we have in terms of such a heavy percentage of part-time employees, as well as just the nature of the industry at large. [W]e hope in our work it will make this easier for the restaurant community to understand the healthcare options available, for employees to understand the choices and the eligibility changes that are occurring due to the Healthcare Reform Act, and to be able to offer a lot of diverse products that we hope will meet the needs of this very diverse industry that we serve.

I'm most proud of: I am most proud of what we are doing as an industry to combat childhood obesity. We really believe that the restaurant and food service industry are a part of the solution to this problem. I'm sure you're aware of the magnitude of the problem. Twenty-seven percent of our young people today are too obese to be able to serve in the armed forces, and we have almost 40 states that report a childhood obesity rate of 40 percent or more. And these problems obviously connect to other problems, whether it's healthcare costs related to obesity or academic abilities in school. So we have been very, very proactive starting … with the first lady's campaign, Let's Move, by budgeting with our members who serve the schools across the country to meet certain guidelines … as well as doubling the amount of produce that will be offered in school meals across the country over the next several years.

We also played a leadership role in the passage of the new national menu labeling law, and the regulations are being written for that right now … so that chain restaurants will be in a position to provide nutritional information on menus [such as] calorie information, and then other information available upon request so that consumers who do have concerns and interests in that area are able to determine what these menu items provide so that they can make choices that are best for them. So we really do believe that this will have an impact … . We are anxious to see the possible impact of this as it relates to kids, as well as their families.

Can you give an overview of your strategic plan?

There are five or six things that we're primarily focused on. Number one—and frankly for us to be successful, this is an incredible component—we have to strengthen the partnership that we have with our state restaurant associations. There's more we can do to support each other and to help each other … we can bring the resources of the whole, the collective, to help address an issue that might just be taking place at that moment in a particular state.

The next piece is that we want to integrate all of the work we do around what we call our industry comparative. There are four primary areas that we're focused on. Number one … food and healthy living. And that's [what I talked] about in terms of childhood obesity, nutrition information availability, improving the perceptions of the restaurant industry around the whole food and healthy living area so we're perceived that we're part of the solution to this problem. Not the problem in and of itself.

The second [initiative] is jobs and careers. Our industry employs over 13 million people today. We are the second largest private-sector employer in the country; second only to healthcare. And so we have an enormous obligation and reasonability around management practices in our industry, around labor supply.

And then, helping to reframe our industry, rather than the industry of minimum wage, to the industry of maximum opportunity. It's astonishing to see how many people have come into this industry and made a career … . These are hundreds of thousands of people who come up through this industry and create an enormously rewarding career for themselves to support their families … .

The third area is sustainability and social responsibility. There are many of opportunities where the industry's actually doing some amazing things, whether it is community support … practices around water usage, energy usage, and waste removal. And we need to continue to work in that arena, as well as proactively tell our story and create an environment where those kinds of things are rewarded, perhaps through tax incentives.

And then finally, profitability and entrepreneurship. I mentioned the margins of our industry previously. Typically around three percent. Very low margin industry. So that we have opportunity through the conduct of our research, through the conduct of our community building, to help improve the profitability, and the ability for new restaurants to start and grow and succeed. So those are the four major areas around the industry comparative and the second [strategic goal].

The third [initiative] is strengthening the identity and reputation of the industry at large. Everyone knows there's a financial services industry. Everybody understands there's a defense industry. But there's not a sense really of a restaurant industry, per say, and in part I think it's because the industry itself is so diverse. But in part it's because we've never really created a campaign or an understanding of this industry and … the 13 million jobs, 130 million meals, the two million restaurant locations. It's just an opportunity for us to tell that story better, so that's the third area. Improve the reputation of the industry at large.

The fourth [initiative] is building a compelling number of value propositions. We have the majority of the industry that does belong to the association, but there are always opportunities to grow there, and we need to be able to better articulate what the member value proposition is and show that in compelling ways to our members and our perspective members.

[Another initiative] is focusing our foundation on jobs and careers. We are revamping our foundation, the National Restaurant Association and Educational Foundation, to focus primarily on the ProStart Program. And our goal there really is to triple the number of students' lives that we can impact over the next several years. Right now we [have reached] about 83,000 students … . We would like to move that closer to 300,000 over the next few years and really change the dynamic of that program to be even more impactful than it's already been. Really we think it could actually be the largest industry supported youth development program in the country, so that's our goal there.

And then finally, building the core products that we have within our own organization, whether it's our food safety certification program, or our tradeshow that is the largest international tradeshow of any type in the restaurant industry. Other things we can bring to the industry to both improve products available to them, and then also the profitability in the industry. So those are the six areas that we're focused on.

Summer Faust is project editor at ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":