Career Profile: Liz Dee, Sarah Dee, and Jessica Dee Sawyer, Smarties Candy Company

Smarties Candy Company, the company that makes the iconic Smarties candy, announced it’s new leadership team earlier this week. Liz Dee, Sarah Dee and Jessica Dee Sawyer are now co-presidents of the brand that has been family-owned and operated since it was founded by their grandfather, Edward “Eddie” Dee, in 1949. The women have worked at Smarties Candy Company for more than a decade. As executive vice presidents, they spearheaded initiatives including infrastructure improvement, investments in solar energy, new product launches and an overhaul of the company’s digital presence. I spoke to them to find out what we can expect as they settle in as co-presidents of their family’s candy company.

Smarties Candy Company

Congratulations on becoming co-presidents of Smarties Candy Company! What are the top three things on your agenda as you take the helm of your family’s company?

Liz Dee: Thank you! We are honored to be carrying the torch and continuing our family’s candy-making tradition.

We have many plans in the works as we take over the helm of Smarties. The first initiative we are rolling out is #LittleSmarties, a campaign championing intellectual curiosity at every age. This is happening alongside our partnership with DonorsChoose.org, which supports classrooms in need by matching grants of $25,000 annually. In fact, this year marks $125,000 for classrooms in need.

Second, we are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to modernizing our systems and processes. We plan to invest in infrastructure in each of our two factories to continue making the best candy we possibly can—as efficiently as possible—in North America.

And finally, we continue to closely listen to our customers to best understand their wants and needs. We are collaborative and, in that spirit, we plan to co-create solutions with our retail partners to deliver the best Smarties experiences possible.

What is a workday like? Please walk me through a day!

Jessica Dee Sawyer: Every day is different. I usually begin by speaking with our vice president of sales to go over any open items that should be dealt with that day. I will meet with our logistics manager to go over freight appointments and timing of order waves. I speak with our art director who usually has designs for me to approve or questions about layout or color. I will speak with our controller regarding our insurance coverage or other human resources concerns that arise. In between meetings, I review emails and work on both short and long-term ongoing projects.

At least once per week, I meet with my co-presidents Sarah Dee and Liz Dee. We go over what is happening in each of our departments and take a top-level look at how the company is doing. Since we are located in the same office, decisions can be made quickly so projects move fast.  It’s one of the many benefits of having a lean and dedicated team.

Sarah Dee: I oversee operations and I like to keep my finger on the pulse at all times, so I start my workday reviewing production reports. I look at production numbers, efficiency reports, machine speeds, changeover times, shipped goods and production tracking for both factories—ultimately determining what areas may need additional support. I will typically check in with my team in the morning to make sure everything’s running smoothly and then address my long-term projects.

Since we are a small, family-owned and managed company, we wear many hats. Top-level projects generally don’t fit neatly into departments. Jessica Dee Sawyer, Liz Dee and I allocate projects so that each initiative has a clear lead and no one has too much on their plate during their department’s busiest times. For example, over the summer, we are producing all of our Halloween orders, and I focus almost entirely on production. That’s when Jessica Dee Sawyer or Liz Dee will take the lead on time-sensitive projects. Right now, Liz Dee is especially busy working with press, so Jessica Dee Sawyer or I will keep long-term projects moving forward.

At least weekly—and sometimes daily—we have executive management meetings where Jessica, Liz and I update each other on what is going on with our top-level projects, as well as specifics in our departments. This is when we step back and assess how things are going to ensure Smarties Candy Company is moving in the right direction. We make major decisions in these meetings to achieve that goal.

What are your responsibilities as co-presidents?

Jessica Dee Sawyer: My responsibilities include overseeing sales, logistics, package design, human resources and office management.

Liz Dee: I head our food quality and safety departments, as well as marketing, communications and digital media.

Sarah Dee: I oversee all operations including production and purchasing.

Furthermore, outside of our pre-defined roles, the three of us shoulder all executive management responsibilities including annual budgeting and vision for the company. As co-presidents and owners, at the end of the day, we touch every aspect of the business.

Smarties Candy Company has been run by your family for seven decades! What are your top tips for working with family members?

Sarah Dee: Listen to each other and communicate with respect and love. You are family after all! Set boundaries that allow you to maintain a strong work and personal relationship. Sometimes when you work with family, disagreements can feel personal, but if you can address these issues as members of the same team working towards a common goal, everyone can walk away happy. And remember, you can always hug it out!

Jessica Dee Sawyer: Have fun. We are so lucky to be working with people we love and like. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that! We all have tough days, but it is nice to know that when we need help, our family is there, right down the hall. The three of us have been close our whole lives and I think that helps when disagreements arise. Luckily we are open communicators and are generally able to come to agreements easily.

How do you make sure to constantly innovate at a company that has been around for 67 years?

Jessica Dee Sawyer: Innovation is interesting when considering an iconic brand like ours. We don’t want to alienate our consumers by changing the candy that they know and love. That will never happen! At the same time, we are committed to delighting people with new products, as well. We are always working on innovation. It’s a major priority for us. Good things take time, and I can assure you that there will be new Smarties goodies to come!

Sarah Dee: I innovate behind-the-scenes on long-term projects. I concentrate on machine procurement that can give us both efficiency and flexibility to make new products in the future. It can be tricky to balance the two. It requires strong due diligence with our machine procurement analysis. In confectionery, at our scale, innovation takes time—many years or sometimes more than a decade—but I can assure you that behind-the-scenes, we are constantly innovating in our production capabilities, and we are very careful to ensure we make smart, lasting changes that allow us to stay competitive long-term.

What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?

Liz Dee: To be successful in my role, one must have a strong commitment to see their vision through, be willing to learn every day and keep all communication channels open. This person must go the extra mile as a team player who is willing to tackle any task that is put before them, regardless of how challenging it is.

Jessica Dee Sawyer: I think that one of the most important characteristics for my role is being a good listener.  I try to speak with all of my employees and hear what we can do better. My door is always open and I enjoy speaking with everyone on my team. Every employee has so much to offer, and I want to make sure that we learn from each of them so no opportunity to improve is overlooked.

Gross: What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?

Sarah Dee: For me to do my job well, it is important to be able to see the big picture, to be able to take all the details and see the long-term plan instead of getting stuck in the weeds. I am a very logical person. I like math, numbers and puzzles. I see my job as a mixture of logic, problem-solving and math, and that plays to my strengths.

There is a lot of problem-solving in my role, often with incomplete information, so it’s frequently a tough judgment call. I learn from mentors and coworkers who bring historical context to avoid future potential issues. Developing these skills came through years of experience and making mistakes. There are lots of lessons you can learn in a classroom, but nothing can really prepare you like rolling up your sleeves and jumping in.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?

Liz Dee: My grandfather, Edward Dee, taught me the importance of stick-to-itiveness and strong resolve. As the founder of Smarties, who still comes into the office at 92-years-old, he defines grit. He came to the United States by boat—as an immigrant with a dream—and created a candy business that touches millions of lives. From him, I learned the importance of showing up, working hard and creating the courage to go for your goals, no matter how lofty.

What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?

Liz Dee: Achievements take time, so keep working hard, pay your dues and be patient!

Sarah Dee: Don’t get discouraged, and make sure your ideas are heard. If you have an idea about how to do something more efficiently, speak up. Even if, ultimately, your ideas are not applied, your boss will take notice that you are a thinker and a go-getter.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Liz Dee: You will learn more from your failures than your successes, and the only way to learn this lesson is the hard way.

Jessica Dee Sawyer: Check and then double-check your work! You’ll never regret giving everything another once-over before it’s final.

Sarah Dee: Everything is a learning experience. Even if you think what you are doing is not ultimately where you want to go, it can be used as a building block to get you there.

What is your career advice for other young professional women?

Liz Dee: Rather than biting at your first professional opportunity, take the time to find work in the space where your skills, the world’s needs and what you enjoy overlap. That is the sweet spot where fulfilling and successful careers are made.

Sarah Dee: You are not alone. It can be lonely being a trailblazer, and you may be the only woman in the room. Remember that there are other successful women who can guide, mentor and inspire you. Look to them and never lose sight of what you are capable of achieving.

Jessica Dee Sawyer: Be the person you want your children to have as a role model. Listen to what people say, as well as what they aren’t saying. Be confident, honest and kind.