Gireesh Sahukar of Dawn Foods: A Game Plan for Successfully Executing Digital Innovation at a 100-Year-Old Brand
Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“Digital is a journey. It’s not a destination.” — Gireesh Sahukar, Vice President of Digital, Dawn Foods
How do you ensure a 100-year-old company is around for the next 100 years?
For Gireesh Sahukar, vice president of digital at Dawn Foods, the answer was pretty clear: digital innovation.
In 2018, the century-old, family-owned bakery ingredient manufacturer shifted its strategy to focus on delivering a best-in-class digital experience for the business-to-business (B2B) buyers who depend on its products.
“Digital is a journey. It's not a destination,” Sahukar says. “The journey is more important than the destination itself because the goal posts keep moving with every year. Things in e-commerce are never static, so you have to keep moving. It takes a lot of energy, focus and effort to continually invest in that and continually make sure that as an organization you can focus on new approaches, new ideas, try new things, test and learn, and gather feedback.”
Sahukar shared Dawn’s digital journey and best practices for ecommerce innovation during a recent episode of the "Unpacking the Digital Shelf" podcast, “Digital Innovation and Commerce in B2B.” Here are his insights for the best ways to prepare your company for the cultural and technological transformation digital innovation requires.
Changing With the Times
Sahukar says when Dawn started its digital journey, it had a “fairly early 20th century view of doing business.”
Dawn’s process wasn’t very technology-enabled, and sales reps would often meet customers in person. That came with certain disadvantages in terms of automation and efficiency, but it also benefited Dawn because the company didn’t have to deal with legacy technology it had to modernize. Without this constraint, “We could imagine what the future would be like and what we needed to do to be in business in that future,” Sahukar says.
Why Digital Innovation
As the company laid out its strategy, it focused on the key capabilities it would need to stay relevant for the long haul. This approach forced Dawn to balance a forward-looking vision with current customer demands.
Sahukar says the company divided its strategy into several work streams that focused on improving both internal and external business processes and operations.
These new buyers now expect the B2B buying experience to offer the same level of price transparency and digital service that they get in the consumer space. You may as well call it the “Amazon-ification” of the B2B market.
“As they came into the workplace, whether it was in the more traditional B2B distribution space or in the manufacturing space, and they started interacting with their suppliers, they started demanding the kind of ease and convenience they had in their personal lives,” Sahukar says of millennial B2B buyers.
These shifts have caused brands like Dawn to rethink how they do business. Customers no longer want to deal with outdated processes. They want to see things like 360-degree views and product videos. They want easy access to information on product specifications, recipe videos, and digital ordering capabilities, Sahukar says.
“Just because we work in the B2B space doesn’t mean we have to accept that inferior tools and websites are okay." — Gireesh Sahukar, Vice President of Digital, Dawn Foods
Preparing for Organizational Change
To successfully execute its digital strategy, Dawn knew it had to begin changing from the inside out. The company hired its first-ever chief digital officer, Bob Howland, who came in and assessed the company’s current digital maturity.
“He got the organization to understand that we need to make pretty significant investments into growing our initial muscle and digital footprint,” Sahukar says.
All the different work streams associated with executing Dawn’s digital transformation began to work more closely together, from finance and manufacturing to supply chain teams.
“Every single part of the company was involved, in one way or another, in making sure digital came to life at Dawn. It takes an entire village to get digital up and running and to make sure it is successful.” — Gireesh Sahukar, Vice President of Digital, Dawn Foods
Creating a Hub for Digital Innovation
Dawn also has created a center of excellence it refers to as its Digital Innovation Hub. The Boston-based hub allows Dawn to experiment with new processes, tools, and technologies in a sandbox-like environment before seeing whether these innovations can scale.
The hub also allows the digital team to have more autonomy in what it creates while fostering collaboration with key parts of the business. This is useful when potential tools and technologies are ready to share with a wider audience.
The Digital Innovation Hub is part of Dawn’s broader digital strategy, but it has contributed to helping the company roll out new digital capabilities such as online ordering, monthly market assessments, and a customer-centric portal for bakeries.
Creating Your Architecture
As Dawn worked on its cultural transformation, it also had an eye on technology modernization.
Sahukar’s team and other key stakeholders identified what key digital capabilities Dawn needed, and which architecture would help them effectively deploy these capabilities.
The team decided a microservices-based and API-friendly architecture would allow Dawn to rapidly create new digital capabilities in response to changing customer demand or sales needs. Then they sought vendors whose platforms fit these requirements.
With its microservices approach in mind, the company chose a variety of vendors for different parts of its architecture. Dawn hired one one provider for its ecommerce platform, another for UI development and headless commerce, and Salsify for product information management.
Transforming the Customer Experience
Dawn’s efforts are paying off. Its technology investments have allowed the company to launch a national ecommerce platform for Dawn’s customer base of more than 11,000 artisanal bakers and their sales reps.
“We had a lot of different customer classes and we decided that we weren’t going to use separate applications and separate interfaces. We were going to put all of the capabilities into one UI [user interface],” Sahukar says. “So, when our customers were looking at a particular raised doughnut mix, for example, our sales rep was looking at the same product as that customer.”
The new platform essentially means sales reps can speak the same language as the customer. This allows them to focus on more a strategic advisory relationship rather than a transactional one. Previously, sales reps focused on all the mechanical steps involved in closing a sale, such as transactional order-taking and inventory management.
The platform also has given Dawn more customer insights it can use, such as customers’ order history and seasonal trends in their buying, which helps sales reps have a more informed conversation with them. It also provides self-service capabilities that allow customers to easily browse Dawn’s product catalog on any device and place orders at their own convenience. The latter has led to an increase in online sales and helped Dawn identify a new audience segment of digital-first customers.
“They continually shop for their orders and products online. They continually place their own orders, and our customer service and sales teams are helping them engage. They’re moving away from that transactional selling to more of that business advisory selling with those customers,” Sahukar says.
As Dawn launches more digital tools, it’s strengthening its customer relationships and empowering the thousands of bakers who rely on its products. This may ultimately be the company’s recipe for success, allowing Dawn to be just as relevant to its customer base 100 years from now.
Listen to the full podcast to learn more about how digital innovation can help your business stay relevant in an ever-changing market.