Podcast / CXO of the Future

Bob Howland, Chief Digital Officer, Dawn Foods Global

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How do you take a hundred-year-old company that started out as a donut shop and turn it into a digital e-commerce success story? Tune in for this week’s CXO of the Future podcast to find out. Bob Howland is the Chief Digital Officer of Dawn Foods, a global leader in bakery ingredient manufacturing and distribution. Prior, he has also held positions focused on e-commerce and marketing at companies such as Spencer Partners, GSI Commerce, The Vanguard Group, GE Capital and American Express. In this newly created role, Bob is building a digital start-up within Dawn to help the organization transform its business model and launch a new eCommerce play. He holds a critical role in driving a remarkable customer experience and disrupting the industry.


Bob started his career as a big company guy—working for three Fortune 50 companies in his first 10 years. His first job was with American Express in New York City, where he participated in one of the financial management development programs that were popular when he graduated from college.

“The way that they developed their future leaders was by giving you a series of rotations. I had four different jobs in two years, augmented by special projects for executives with fellow program members. These executives could not have been more giving of their time and were curious to hear what my 22-year-old self had to say. The experience taught me at a very early age to lean in, to be vocal, and to take chances. It also gave me a view of the of the company from the C-Suite.”

Bob’s ability to understand companies and where they were heading led him to a series of unique roles in marketing, product development and customer experience. He became a P&L executive early on, but in 2000 became fascinated with e-commerce and the many possibilities that it allowed an organization to connect with the customer, be data driven and rapidly iterate.

“Those three things—the customer, the data, and the rapid iteration allowed me to drive unique changes and transformation from within. So I guess it’s been in my DNA for most of my professional career to help companies transform before they got disrupted.”

Bob joined Dawn Foods in 2019 as their first ever Chief Digital Officer.

“I think Dawn has had such a fascinating story. It went from a donut shop to a manufacturer of donut and bakery ingredients, and then expanded to distribution. We’re now in 110 countries, although the US is our dominant piece of revenue in terms of market share and profitability. We’ve expanded more recently into digital and that was quite a journey for a hundred-year-old company. I give Dawn’s leadership a lot of credit for having the foresight and the curiosity to say ‘Hey, the world around us is changing. Maybe we should too.’”

Dawn looked at the transformation that companies like Apple, Google and Amazon were driving and thought ‘Why can’t we capture some of that for our customers and for ourselves?’ After a 12-month digital transformation journey, they realized they needed to bring in someone with digital and e-commerce expertise.

“We’re a hundred-year-old bakery ingredient manufacturing company. We need to build for the next hundred years and that means we need a pretty significant business model transformation.  So the core element of my job is to put them on the path of building that new digital business model for the future. My side gig is to bring digital capabilities and e-commerce to the company, to the sales team, and to our customers. But the bigger opportunity for all of us is to change the way we work and to build new ways of working that will set the company up for future success.”

The Role of a CDO

There are so many different kinds of Chief Digital Officers. Bob is a part of a couple advisory groups and councils of CDOs and has learned how different each CDO’s job is.

“I’ve built e-commerce businesses for 25 companies in my career. In doing that, I’ve also transformed 25 companies. I believe that the technology piece of e-commerce is pretty easy. Anybody can whip up a website in six months and get it out there. The real challenge is to build the website in a way that the people who need it use it.”

Bob has found that most CDOs are CIOs that want a different title. “CIOs that are well versed in enterprise architecture, and keeping the lights on, from a legacy-system-point-of-view are most likely not the right fit for an organization that is looking for a CDO. Those companies are seeking new ways of working with new technologies to transform the business.  That’s the biggest disconnect I see with CEOs and boards trying to hire Chief Digital Officers.”

Viewing the Future

Self-service was the rage before COVID-19 hit, but now that experience has been removed and may never return. Celebrations such as graduations and weddings with massive cakes and dessert spreads are also going by the wayside. But one trend that was starting pre-COVID that was yet to take hold was the idea of individual servings. It hadn’t taken hold because it’s more complicated to plan and can be a little bit more expensive.

“But the throughput tends to be much more unique,” says Bob, “I get the ceremonial aspect of the wedding cake, but from a food preparation and consumer enjoyment standpoint, I think individual taste is something that will be a post-COVID trend. I think the world of B2B can sometimes be archaic in terms of how business is conducted. In the case of a bakery distribution company like ours, the way that we sell our product is that our salespeople go out, visit customers, and take orders manually, with drive times being a waste of somebody’s day. The ability for a customer to order whatever they want online as opposed to ordering only when the salesperson arrives is game-changing. Customers have been asking for this for quite some time.”

The Digital Innovation Hub

The executive team and board of Dawn Foods understood what they knew and, more importantly, what they didn’t know. They recognized that they were a hundred-year-old company in rural Michigan with a legacy way of working.

“I had been EVP and GM for the leading furniture e-commerce platform in North America, based in Boston, where consumers purchased furniture unseen because of our huge omnichannel component. As we were thinking about the Dawn Digital Innovation Hub, the Board and Executive team had already concluded that this hub needed to be outside of our headquarters to fully enable new ways of working. The idea of Boston appealed for a number of reasons. Not only did I have a deep network there, it’s also one of the bigger entrepreneurial hubs and has a great heritage of B2B and e-commerce. Boston also has a rich history with MIT and Harvard and the talent coming out of those schools.”

Bob is now using that network to create a new way of hiring and has built up a 14-person Digital Innovation Hub. He has a team that’s incredibly diverse with experience in a lot of different shops and a lot of different tech stacks. They are fortunate to be well funded by a very successful company.

“We get to decide how we work, which tools to work on, and how we build this platform. The experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


CXO 11 | Dawn Foods Global
Dawn Foods Global: The bigger opportunity for all of us is to change the way we work, build new ways of working, and set the company up for future success.


Getting People Onboard

When Bob joined the business, Dawn was on a path that he didn’t fully agree with. So Bob harkened back to his days with American Express and asked a very simple question:

“‘Can someone tell me why we are doing that?’” The ‘that’ was going after a B2C strategy to build websites for our customers. There were two reason I struggled with the idea. One was that we’re not a technology company. Two is that our customer is the bakery and we haven’t yet built a digital footprint or digital engagement with them. So why wouldn’t that be our first call to action?”


CXO 11 | Dawn Foods Global
Dawn Foods Global: The best choice for us would be a choice that reflected our industry’s unique area and context as informed by the customer. 


Fortunately, the company came back to Bob and said they were just waiting for someone to tell them what to do. “I was like ‘OK well thank you! Let’s build an online ordering platform for our largest customer segment that we think is going to value this the most.’”

He put together a business plan for that and said, “This is the path I’m gonna take, here’s the method to the madness, the people, the process and the tools. Here’s the money I think it’s going to require and if you agree, here’s when I can deliver it.”

They said yes.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds, says Bob, but it was compelling. He was asking for more money than Dawn wanted to spend but was able to contextualize it.
“Doing it well in a fairly short period of time is much less expensive from an operating expense line perspective.”


CXO 11 | Dawn Foods Global
Dawn Foods Global: Often, leadership doesn’t come on its own. You have to get forced into a rough situation where you’re either on a losing market or in a defensive posture to react.


Advice for Startups

“When we got Board approval for our Digital Innovation Hub, we had a compelling story, but no platform and no tech resources. Someone in my shoes would likely have done the following—call Oracle, Adobe or Salesforce and ask for pitches. All of those companies have amazing tool sets and may have been a good choice for us. But I was adamant that the best choice for us would reflect the unique area and context of our industry, that was informed by the customer, and that would ensure a future state where technology could be an enabler as opposed to something that handcuffed the business. We didn’t want to be beholden to a major bundle provider (which always added things that were less strong).

I also wanted a composable, modular, ecosystem approach where I had multiple different partners—the back end, the content management system, and the product information system. I wanted each of these to be relatively inexpensive and I wanted them all to be on annual contracts. I didn’t want to have any one of my solutions to be something that I couldn’t get out of if it wasn’t working. I wanted to be able to stitch all of these things together as a custom-made solution that was fit for our purpose.”

Many of these companies that are part of Bob’s ecosystem did not exist 2 or 3 years ago, or existed, but are now coming into new ways of working. Others shifted their business model a little bit to take advantage of this. There is a growing movement that Gartner calls composable commerce. It’s a pretty radical concept—especially for a hundred-year-old company, but there are organizations and entrepreneurs that are really good at what they do. They partner with people that would be additive to their solution as opposed to competitive. This is the way that more firms and executives are going to be looking at solving their technology problems in the future.

I think the smart, young, agile companies in each of these product specialty areas were already thinking this way.

Secrets to Success

“I have always tried to be an outside-in thinker. I’m usually the only person in the room that brings in the customer or the data or something else to the table. I’m steeped in that because I spend much more time, I think, than my peers do outside of the four walls of my business. Whether that’s talking to customers, startups, emerging technology providers or Chief Digital Officers in other companies, I think having that outside-in perspective it is critical.

I have also tried to take a conversation and amplify it and its possibilities as opposed to restraining or restricting it by its limitations. That’s been the hallmark of how I fell into my career. I had great training early on and have had some amazing opportunities to test this way of thinking, which has so far been well received. But I think it goes beyond asking the question, ’Why do we do it this way?” and it becomes ‘What’s the best version of our company’.”

5 Key Takeaways

  1. Lean in, be vocal, and take chances.
  2. Recognize what you know, but also recognize what you don’t know.
  3. Doing things well in fairly short period of time is much less expensive from an operating expense line perspective.
  4. Instead of asking the question, ’Why do we do it this way?” ask ‘What’s the best version of our company?’
  5. CIOs that are well versed in enterprise architecture, and keeping the lights on, from a legacy system point of view are most likely not the right fit for an organization that is looking for a disruptive CDO.

About Bob Howland

CXO 11 | Dawn Foods Global

Bob Howland is currently Chief Digital Officer at Dawn Foods Global. This new role reflects the growing importance that digital has for Dawn’s customers and future. Bob has been a pioneer in helping companies adopt ecommerce, engage customers online, and build digital business models, and will now leverage his insights and expertise to implement Dawn Food’s long term digital strategy and overall business model so that Dawn can continue their tradition of innovation and support of customers around the world.

Before joining Dawn, Bob was Executive Vice President and General Manager at Blueport Commerce, the leading SaaS Cloud ecommerce platform for furniture, used by the largest retailers in North America to run their omnichannel business. Prior to Blueport, Bob has held executive management positions at various companies with the focus on business transformation and change management. Bob is married and has 2 daughters.

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