Dawn Food Products’ J. Brian Coleman wins the Judges’ Choice Benny Award

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Sugar, spice and everything nice … these are the things you tend to find in many delicious baked goods. And the benefits leader at Dawn Food Products, J. Brian Coleman, strives to put those same ingredients into his benefits programs to help cook up a sweet company culture.

“We have a passion for bakery and we have a passion for taking great care of our people,” he says. Coleman, VP of total rewards and HR shared services for Dawn Food Products, an international bakery supplier, is the winner of the 2015 Benny Award in the Judges’ Choice category.

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Coleman has been in the people business since his early years at Eastern Michigan University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in human resources. There he worked in a co-op position, where for two semesters, and a lot of “trial by fire,” he saw all facets of the business from compensation and benefits to salary redesigns.

“And I’ve been focused on building effective benefit and rewards programs ever since,” he says, noting that he still likes to go back to his alma mater to give guest lectures.

Coleman has been with Dawn for over eight years and delights in diving deep into his employer’s mission of taking care of its people. The evidence is seen in his meticulous fostering of an educational and engaging workplace culture — one that extends to the benefits packages Dawn provides its full-time and seasonal employees.

“We’re very holistic,” he says of the company’s programs and offerings. “Think about how we are as humans.  We respond to the entire picture. Wellness matters, but so does financial health and we need to provide exceptional rewards to help keep people motivated.”

With the company mantra “we know, we care, we can help” always in mind, Coleman has led the charge in developing a multiyear, strategic and thoughtful health and benefits strategy that has yielded measurable positive results for Dawn Food Products and its team members.

The program hinges on ensuring that employees are educated and informed about the benefits options available to them.

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Coleman recalls a recent visit to a manufacturing facility where a good portion of the employees are Vietnamese.

“It’s really about sitting down with somebody … and walking them through and having them understand benefits they’ve never had before,” he says, emphasizing some of the tremendous work that goes into partnering with translators and working with materials written in different languages.

“Dawn is a very people-oriented organization,” he says. “So instead of putting everything on the Web, we actually have individual educators go to each manufacturing site. We invest in a lot of face time and a lot of education time to try to help folks understand how we made their benefits better.”

From an organizational perspective, he says, when you make a reduction to a team member’s health risk factors, they’ll realize better health and  increased productivity. “It’s a win-win for both sides of the equation,” he adds.

Clear the deck

“I’m a firm believer that if you can help people clear their deck to help them when they’re at home to be more engaged, to help them when they’re at work to be more engaged, to worry less and really take care of their time now and in the future, all this stuff links together like a bunch of Lego blocks,” he says.

Dawn’s multiyear benefits strategy remains focused on three key areas: financial, health and welfare.

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Dawn launched a 401(k) plan refresh, spearheaded by Coleman and his team, in 2012 to help ensure employees save for the long term. All participants are now defaulted to the qualified default investment alternative, resulting in a seven-fold increase in the utilization of the QDIA. In addition, Coleman aggressively monitors program costs and has lowered administrative costs by 50% over the last few years.

Support from the C-suite executives has been critical to his success, he says. That support is “the kind of thing that’s made it easier to do this type of design,” he adds.

Get your data

His advice for other employers? Get your numbers and get them to a point where you can analyze them. Then ask where you are, where you want to be and where your engagement is, he says, adding that it’s also important to  keep an eye out for new players in the benefits space. You can always improve benefits, but first you need to fully understand them through useful data, he says.

But he offers the advice with a word of caution. “You can quote all the numbers you want,” he says, but ultimately organizational success boils down to team member engagement.

As an example of this engagement, Coleman fondly recalls an exchange between his son and one of the company’s board members during a take-your-kids-to-work-day back in 2008.

“One of the board chairmen sat next to my son, and the guy thanked my son — who was 10 years old — for my service and told him if he was half as good as I was, they want him working here when he’s old enough,” he says. “Where do you see that anymore?”

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It’s never quiet for Coleman as there is always something brewing on the horizon.

“It never ends,” he says. “There is always something new tomorrow and the minute you think you have it all handled, the regulations will change. So it’s always been a lot of fun to keep us consistent with the market and with everything we do.”

But the best piece of advice for HR professionals, he says, is to really understand their industry.

“We need to understand how our benefit plans and the trends impact our business,” he says. “Our goal is to set up our companies for future success.”

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