Nutrisystem’s Dawn Zier on Turning Around a Household Name

The region’s highest-paid female executive of a publicly traded company talks about the power of power breakfasts, one simple trick for mastering networking, and why DNA is the future of wellness.

Dawn Zier at Nutrisystem’s Fort Washington headquarters. Photograph by Jonathan Pushnik

Just two years after Dawn Zier took over as president and CEO of Nutrisystem, the company experienced its first year of revenue growth in seven years. Needless to say, Zier, 53, knows a thing or two about turning around a multimillion-dollar brand. But the region’s highest-paid female executive of a publicly traded company never really had her sights set on becoming a CEO, let alone CEO of one of the country’s leading weight-loss companies. As Zier explains, her journey has never been straight.

I grew up … on Long Island, New York.

My first job was … selling macramé hangers that I made. [laughs] I made a lot of money going door-to-door. I had very kind neighbors.

Something most people might not know about me is … I used to play electric guitar.

The key to turning a company around is … getting the right culture in place. That means getting the right people and putting them in the right jobs. And it’s something you always have to be working on, because a company is fluid — it’s always evolving.

Being named one of the nation’s best CEOs means … I rarely get to sleep. [laughs]

When I was growing up, I dreamed of becoming … president. Not that I would take that job now if you paid me.

I studied computer science because … I liked math, and I wanted a job when I graduated.

More people should study computer science, because … it teaches you how to break down complex problems into working modules. That’s something that has really informed my business expertise.

The weight-loss industry is … moving toward more personalized solutions. It’s not about one-size-fits-all.

My daily diet consists of … a lot of Nutrisystem, and I’m not just saying that. People can attest to this. My daily diet is a balance between Nutrisystem and eating out, because as an executive, you have to go to lunches, breakfasts, dinners. I always try to do breakfast, because it’s the least damaging meal to eat out. You can manage it more easily. If I’m at home, I’ll have my chocolate muffin for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and either my chicken parmesan or turkey for dinner.

My snack of choice is … chocolate ice cream, chocolate ice cream and … chocolate ice cream. [laughs]

One of the most remarkable transformation stories from my time with the company is … the cultural change. The company went from having a culture that accepts the status quo to one that fights to win. In the past, the company accepted a mediocre outcome. Now, we’re all about performing and winning.

Nutrisystem stays relevant by … always looking at what is next in terms of personalized nutrition and weight loss and, increasingly, health and wellness. We’re always trying to innovate ahead of the trends or move quickly on trends that are becoming more popular. And it always has to be science-based. We’re steeped in science. Nothing we do can be about fads.

A Nutrisystem innovation I’m proud of is … our DNA Body Blueprint, which is a personalized blueprint or action plan that we provide people based on their unique genetic makeup. It focuses specifically on eating behaviors, nutrition, metabolism and vitamins.

A project keeping me busy for the rest of the year is … diet season, which starts on New Year’s Day. From Thanksgiving and even Halloween, people aren’t in weight-loss mode. But once the ball drops, people decide they want to get healthier. We see a ton of traffic to our website. It’s very exciting.

A hidden responsibility of the job is … knowing you are responsible for the livelihood of everybody who works for you. It’s not something you talk about on earnings calls, but the company has to do well for the continued livelihood of the team.

I wish I had more time to … travel with my family. We are big on experiences and seeing the world, and I wish I had more time to do that. The last trip we took was to Croatia.

A habit I’m trying to break is … being so attached to my phone.

A skill I’m still honing is … being present. I think I’m a pretty good multi-tasker, but that doesn’t mean I’m always present in the situation.

The best career advice I’ve ever gotten is … Two bits of advice. One is to step out of your comfort zone; don’t be afraid of change. The other is, don’t let the tail wag the dog, which to me is: Don’t let process get in the way of innovation.

My favorite piece of career advice to share is … that the journey is not a straight line. I tell young people that there will be twists and turns in their careers. You don’t have to know exactly where you’re going today. Also, don’t go it alone. That’s more for senior executives. We think we should know all the answers, but it’s about surrounding yourself with the best team so you’re constantly getting input.

On weekdays I typically wake up … around 6 a.m. and go to bed by probably 1 or 2 a.m. [laughs] I don’t sleep a lot.

My family thinks I am … awesome, and I like that. It’s cool, because I think I’m a good role model for my kids. My husband and kids are proud of me. And they don’t think I’m awesome because of my job. They think I’m awesome because I’m Mom.

A part of my daily routine I swear by is … always eating breakfast. It’s important to get up and get your metabolism going.

I splurge on … vacations.

In my bag, I always carry … Band-Aids.

The last time I cried was … probably a few weeks ago. We had one of our quarterly town halls, and someone on our Nutrisystem program came in and told us his transformation story. It was so inspiring. My tears weren’t sad tears, but goosebump-story tears. I was in awe of the impact we have on everyday people’s lives. It’s really humbling.

The most difficult business decision I’ve ever had to make is … letting people go. Maybe it’s not the most difficult, but it’s certainly tough. I do it when I have to, but it’s never easy, and it should never become easy, since you’re disrupting someone’s life.

To master networking, one should … smile and always say hello. It’s simple. A smile opens the door all the time.

In five years, the company will … not only be known as one of the leading weight-loss companies, but will be a leader in health and wellness and personalized nutrition.

In 10 years, I will … still be figuring out who I want to be when I grow up. It’s all about the journey and being open to opportunities.

» See Also: I Love My Job

Published as “I Love My Job: Dawn Zier On Turnarounds” in the November 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.