How I Made It

The man behind the brands

John Dawson recommends always being open to “stretch opportunities”

The gig: After cheeseburgers and doughnuts, it was time for coffee and tea. Stints at McDonald's and Dunkin' Brands led John Dawson to his first chief executive position in January 2014. Dawson, 51, runs one of the nation's oldest and biggest privately held specialty coffee chains — Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

Mentors: First was his father, George, who worked in the personnel department at Ralph Parsons in Pasadena. "I learned a lot from him about how to approach people," Dawson said. "He talked in a nice, friendly, non-coercive way." Later, it was self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie. "I have read Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' book 30 times. It's all about the basic foundations you need to operate both personally and professionally."

Starting out: The West Covina native graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 1985 with degrees in economics and public administration. Dawson went to work in the West Covina city manager's office in 1986. It wasn't a good fit. "City politics was slower and a lot more bureaucratic than I thought," he said. Dawson soon gave up the security of salary and benefits to rely solely on commissions as a real estate broker in Sherman Oaks, buying and selling and leasing commercial properties for a local developer. "I was making good money as a broker," Dawson said, "but the developer was making a lot more. I wanted to make what he was making."

Changing gears: In 1987, Dawson went back to school for a master's degree in real estate development at USC. Then came the real estate downturn of 1988. Rather than wait for a real estate recovery, Dawson applied for job at McDonald's Corp. as an area real estate manager. "I thought I'd be at McDonald's for a year. I stayed for 17 years, until 2005," Dawson said.

Finding a spot: "I had every real estate position for McDonald's. I ran the Los Angeles region. I ran their Western United States. Then I went into international development." While he was vice president of worldwide development, "we did the first 14 McDonald's in Pakistan," Dawson said. "We opened the first nine McDonald's in Cyprus. I went to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria. I think we must have gone to 40 countries for McDonald's."

McLoving it: "I met my wife at McDonald's," Dawson said about his mate, Barbara, who eventually became a vice president of operations for McDonald's before switching careers. "She's my partner, my best friend, my secret weapon."

Seeing the doughnut: Dawson recommends always being open to "stretch opportunities," even if you are happy at your job. In 2005, he got that kind of call from Dunkin' Donuts. "'We're a regional company,'" Dawson recalls them saying, "'and we need someone to sketch out our national growth plan.' It was a chance to draft a strategy, build the team, to really be in charge."

Growth trajectory: Dawson has lots of experience with growth. "When I started at McDonald's there were approximately 8,000 restaurants," Dawson said, "when I left there were 33,000. At Dunkin, we started with 4,000 locations, and when I left there were 7,000, stretching all the way west to California."

Keep looking: In 2012, Dawson took a year off from work "to recharge." He did some consulting, including for a group that wanted to buy a company. For his next challenges, Dawson said, "I wanted a brand I believe in and good people to work with." The company turned out to be Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The new owners wanted to see it grow well beyond its 300 locations in the U.S. and about 700 locations around the world, mostly in Southeast Asia. They liked Dawson so much they hired him as chief executive.

Leading the pack: "Build a coalition," Dawson said. "If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with a group."

Personal: Dawson lives in West Hollywood with Barbara, who is a Pilates instructor and a health and wellness coach. The two work out together at 5:30 on most mornings. Their idea of a vacation is hiking up the "14ers." Those are a series of Rocky Mountains peaks in Colorado that are at least 14,000 feet high.

ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

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