Robert Rosenberg Baked Winning Recipe For Dunkin’ Donuts Success

You’d think longtime Dunkin’ Brands CEO Robert Rosenberg kicks off his day with a French Cruller or a handful of Munchkins. But it’s an inspirational quote that inspires him every morning.


These words hang from Rosenberg’s refrigerator door: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not … Genius will not … Education will not … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” This famous quote, attributed to former President Calvin Coolidge, sets Rosenberg’s strategy for the day.

And it’s also how Rosenberg, 83, navigated a powerful career as Dunkin’ Brands CEO from 1963 until his 1998 retirement. He presided over the company, then known as Dunkin’ Donuts, and its successful run. He turned the humble doughnut shop into one of America’s best known brands. Dunkin’ Brands, now owned by private equity firm Inspire Brands, is the holding company of Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Some of the qualities essential for success are a clear view of what the purpose of your business should be, the purpose of your life and the importance of persistence,” he told Investor’s Business Daily. “You’re going to run into lots of bumps in the road. The ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and fulfill your purpose is essential in the law of success.”

Cook Up Big Growth Like The Former Dunkin’ Donuts CEO

During his 35 year tenure, Rosenberg oversaw the growth of Dunkin’ Donuts from $10 million in sales to over $2 billion with more than 3,000 outlets. The company was public from 1968 to 1989 and earned its investors a 35% compound average annual rate of return. Today known as Dunkin’ Brands, the company had a market value of more than $8 billion before Inspire bought it last year.

Rosenberg is quick to say he didn’t do it alone: “Let me never give you the impression that where we grew up as a business was as a result of me. I’m more comfortable in teams. If the business was successful, it was because we had a phenomenal team of people.”

He says that included the board of directors, his senior leadership team, “all the employees, and the great franchisees who provided new ideas and new products.”

“Robert really cared about people and created a family environment,” said Sid Feltenstein, a Dunkin’ Donuts senior vice president of marketing who worked with Rosenberg for 19 years. “Having a management team where trust abounds helps ensure the best possible results, and Robert created that,” he said.

Rosenberg: Help People Around You Win

The job of the CEO is to help people and put them in a position to succeed, said Rosenberg, who also wrote “Around The Corner To Around The World: A Dozen Lessons I Learned Running Dunkin’ Donuts.”

He says: “Basically your job is when things go wrong, you take a 100% of the responsibility because the buck stops at your desk,” Rosenberg said. “And when things go right, you share all the credit and you share all of the financial rewards with the people that helped create it.”

“Robert’s skill at motivating people to excel and work together was a testament to his intelligence, personality, and preparedness,” said Len Geller, who worked with Rosenberg for 20 years as a Dunkin’ Donuts vice president.

Keep Lessons From Your Early Life

Rosenberg was born in Boston. He grew up in his father William’s food service business. It started with a single shop in Quincy, Mass. in 1950 and grew to eight small food service entities.

William was an eighth grade dropout and a child of the Great Depression. William set the standard for insisting on the highest quality ingredients “and a real commitment to taking care of the customer,” his son Robert said. “That was baked into the DNA of the Dunkin’ Donuts business from the very beginning and that we carried on throughout.”

Robert’s education was both real-world and formal. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1959 from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. And he served in the U.S. Army.

And he was just a few days from graduation from Harvard Business School when his father, 47 years old and healthy, turned to his son, then only 25, to run Universal Food Systems. Earnings at the Dunkin’ Donuts holding company flattened out. His father tried to sell the business but could not get the price he sought.

Robert Rosenberg came in with a new strategy: he divested the company of their other food businesses. He focused on what he saw as the diamond in the rough: Dunkin’ Donuts. Universal Food Systems’ other businesses, a vending machine company, industrial cafeterias, a pancake restaurant and a delicatessen, distracted management.

“Businesses can die from indigestion,” Rosenberg said. In just five years, from 1963 to 1968, Rosenberg increased Dunkin’ Donuts earnings 800% and took it public.

Know The Big Four Rules Of Leadership

Rosenberg says there are four essential responsibilities of a CEO and leader. The first is being the shepherd for the strategy of the business. Ask yourself: “What do you want to be? What do you want to have? And what four or five strategic levers are you going to pull to achieve them?”

“Robert espoused his vision for the business,” Feltenstein said. “It was always quite specific and metric driven. It became the lens through which the company created their strategies and tactics to drive the business forward.”

The second essential is building the organization. “Recruit, retain, and motivate,” Rosenberg said. “Create an organization that’s capable of executing the strategy. If you don’t get the strategy right, if you don’t get the organization spot on, then little else you can do will result in success.”

The third essential is communication. “The job of the CEO is to align all the constituents behind the strategy,” Rosenberg said.

The fourth essential of leadership is responding appropriately in crisis, Rosenberg said. “Because crisis comes into the life of all human beings and comes into the life of all businesses.”

Feltenstein said when Dunkin’ Donuts hit low points, “Robert’s self-reflection led him to realize that he needed to do things differently. His amazing intellectual curiosity resulted in continuous evolution of his thinking.”

Listen To Others And Act

Rosenberg says the most important advice he’d give his younger self is “listen, listen, listen. You’ll be amazed at how many people can contribute and help you. Listening is a gift that keeps on giving.”

A prime example of the benefit of listening happened with some Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee stores in the Philippines, in the cities of Makati and Manila.

Rosenberg learned franchisees there were taking doughnuts out of their stores and selling them in convenience stores, gas stations and movie theaters. Rosenberg was on his way to Japan and decided to stop in Manila to tell those franchisees to stop doing that.

But upon arriving in the Philippines and meeting with franchisees, Rosenberg listened. He learned about the tremendous successes franchisees were having. Up to that time Dunkin’ Donuts products were only sold within the four walls of their stores. Every Dunkin’ Donuts shop was conceived as half bakery and half retail requiring around 2,000 square feet. But after listening to the franchisees in the Philippines, that ultimately became the way Dunkin’ Donuts went to market in the U.S. and abroad.

“It was transformational over the entire business,” Rosenberg said. “Return on investments went up. Instead of opening 2,000 square feet stores with 1,000 feet of bakery, we would open up one and then we’d service four or five satellites stores out of that plus gas stations, convenience stores and theaters.”

“We started distributing the product where people shop, work, and travel to play. Here was a better way to go to market and our franchisees were leading us in this direction,” he said.

Keep Educating Yourself

Staying open-minded and continually learning and growing are key pieces of advice Rosenberg would give to aspiring and current CEOs.

“I didn’t come to the CEO job fully baked,” Rosenberg says. Getting there “was (a) constant process of attending seminars, reading books, and studying other leaders. I caucused with other people I admired.”

Rosenberg defined his purpose in leading Dunkin’ Donuts as being of value to others, whether it was customers or his team and staff.

“I saw the purpose of the Dunkin’ Donuts business is to really provide a meaningful betterment in people’s lives day in and day out,” Rosenberg said. “That was my North Star.”

Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Rosenberg’s Keys

  • CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts from 1963 to 1998. Oversaw the growth of Dunkin’ Donuts from $10 million in sales to over $2 billion, with more than 3,000 outlets. Earned its investors a 35% compound rate of return.
  • Overcame: Taking over a stagnant business in the highly competitive food services industry.
  • Lesson: “Listen, listen, listen. You’ll be amazed at how many people can contribute and help you. Listening is a gift that keeps on giving.”


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