Weight Watchers President Dave Burwick Addresses Students at Welch MBA Forum

News Story: April 1, 2011
President Petillo, left, sat down for a conversation with Weight Watchers North America President Dave Burwick during the Welch MBA Forum.

A successful business career begins with passion, said Dave Burwick, president of Weight Watchers, North America, Wednesday night, at Sacred Heart University’s Welch MBA Forum. Burwick was the inaugural guest of this new forum which will continue in the fall.
Burwick sat down with University President Dr. John Petillo to answer questions about his experience during the past year with Weight Watchers and for 20 years before that with PepsiCo. His main message for the graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, staff and guests was to “determine what you are passionate about and go find a place to do it.” Burwick returned to the theme of passion over and over again as he answered questions from Dr. Petillo and the students.
Burwick said he chose to move from PepsiCo, where he was serving as chief marketing officer, to Weight Watchers because he wanted profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities. He jokingly described his move as going from the dark side to the light side as he added that he was also looking for an opportunity to work in health and wellness.
“When you start your career, you want to be a functional expert and an evangelist for your product. As you progress in your career and take on a general manager type of role, you become an evangelist for the entire company,” he said.
Burwick described a successful company as one that “mixes the math and the music.” He said when he joined Weight Watchers, the company had the math part down pat. He believes he was able to add the “music” component. “Sometimes it’s better to go on instinct rather than overanalyze every detail. When I joined Weight Watchers, my marketing background helped people to trust my ideas even when I didn’t always have the data to back them up.”
That said, Burwick cautioned the students that there are pros and cons to creative disruption. “The company has to be geared toward change and able to change quickly. But you shouldn’t make changes for change’s sake. It should come with a plan, strategy and vision. You need to explain to the people involved what your vision is and lead them toward your goal. And, you need to remember that old is not always bad.”

When asked about the differences between Weight Watchers and PepsiCo, Burwick mentioned long-term and short-term planning. “Weight Watchers has a mission to get people to eat healthy and to help the economy by lowering health care costs. The vision and goal is long-lasting because it is based on nutrition and science. There is less focus on short-term goals.  At Pepsi there are always teams of people working on innovation, but given the nature of the business, they need to respond to the latest product put out by competitors. This often forces more of a short-term focus."

When asked what he look for in the people he hires, Burwick said he looks for smart people. “I look for people who have mastered their function and have become an expert I can rely on,” he said. “I also look for emotional intelligence. People confuse IQ with leadership, but they are not the same. I look for people who can control their emotions, are self aware, can motivate others and can interact in a collaborative way.”
Burwick told the students that the reputation of the school they come from is not the most important thing when looking for a job. “Harvard is overrated,” he laughingly said of the institution where he earned his master’s degree in business administration. “You need to have a game plan and you need to network. Decide what you are passionate about and find a company where you can do it. Understand the company you are approaching. Do your research and use your contacts. I am always willing to talk to a friend of a friend.”
The Connecticut resident also suggested submitting a bio or profile with the resume instead of the traditional cover letter. “That’s easier to do once you have some experience,” he conceded, “but I would rather read a quick few paragraphs of a bio than a long cover letter. Try to find some common ground with the person you are writing to. At the end of the day, the two things I look for are smart people who will challenge me and genuinely nice people.”
Smart, nice people are one reason he is so happy at Weight Watchers. “Weight Watchers is a warm, empathetic organization filled with people who believe the organization changed their lives. It is a unique, uplifting place.”
On the other hand, the characteristics that make it unique and uplifting – that the company hires people who have successfully completed its program – present a challenge when it comes to reaching out to diverse populations in North America. “Our typical consumer is an upscale, white, 47-year-old woman. When your leaders are white women in their 40s, it can be hard to reach out to other demographics. The Jennifer Hudson campaign has helped with that, but we have a long way to go and a lot of opportunity,” he said.
He is excited about the opportunities ahead for him and for Weight Watchers. “Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and we are working on new ways to reach them, whether it’s through business-to-business opportunities or finding a way to work with parents on the issue of childhood obesity. We are always looking for new channels to reach consumers, but our vision remains the same,” he said.
“If you want to be a leader, vision is critical,” he concluded. The role of the leader is to awaken passion in others to achieve your vision. It’s not easy to do.”
Brittany Nuzzaci, ’11, was extremely impressed with Burwick’s message and stuck around after the program to tell him that she views him as an innovator and visionary. “He has the ability to inspire people. He seemed like a real motivator. I find myself trying to do that with my friends sometimes, and it can be very difficult,” she said. “I appreciate these opportunities to meet people like Mr. Burwick. It’s important to have the chance to learn something other than what is in the textbooks.”