DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. — Dwayne Hughes wakes up at 5 a.m. every day without an alarm clock, and his wife often pounds on the door soon afterward to stop him from optimistically singing in the shower before sunrise.

“I’m not a good singer,” he admitted. “I generally wake up with a positive attitude ready to take the day. The challenges of operations are in my blood. We spend a lot of time at work, and your coworkers do become your second family. I try to make our time together rewarding and fulfilling.”

Welcome to Dwayne’s World, where an acclaimed “overachiever” throughout his life has grown to embrace that term he previously disavowed.

“I used to think of ‘overachieving’ as a negative compliment, but now I accept it,” said Mr. Hughes, senior vice-president, supply chain, Hearthside Food Solutions, Downers Grove, and Baking & Snack’s 2018 Operations Executive of the Year.

In life, true leaders cultivate a list of accomplishments that nobody can ever take from them. For Mr. Hughes, that list includes president and valedictorian of his high school class. He also was a high school and college football captain, where he played as an NCAA All-American linebacker, named Academic All-American and led his team to an 8-1 record in his senior year (with only one touchdown allowed against the defense). He eventually became a Monmouth College Hall of Fame inductee. Among “his gold,” as the 53-year-old father calls the most precious things in his life, are his wife Shannon of 30-something years — they’re hoping for 50 years like his parents — and three children: Blake, 33; Zak, 31; and Mckenzie, 26.

In anybody’s book, that’s real achievement.

Yet this humble executive from suburban Chicago lives the life of servant leadership. His everyday goal at Hearthside — one of the food industry’s largest co-manufacturers with more than $3 billion in sales and owner of 38 processing and packaging facilities — is to break down the barriers and make life easier for the more than 10,000 employees who work with him.

It’s simple to understand why he feels this way when he reflects on a career trajectory that went from an aspiring position in the medical field to creating a world-class baking operation. Mr. Hughes fell in love with manufacturing, and the rest is a history that he lives to the fullest each day.

Humble beginnings

His passion for operations is not surprising since his first job in the 1980s was with Danville, Ill.-based Quaker Oats, a stalwart manufacturing company where his dad had worked for decades.

“I am a product of the baking industry,” Mr. Hughes recalled. “And my son, Zak, now works for Hearthside, too, so we have three generations in the industry.”

As a recently married pre-med student with ambitions of becoming a doctor, Mr. Hughes strived to balance work and life. In fact, he volunteered for the oft-described dreaded overnight shift at the Quaker Oats factory to achieve what his goals were at that time.

“I had to feed my family, and that’s why I needed the job,” he recalled. “I told the company, ‘Please leave me on the third shift so I can also go to school.’”

A couple of years later, after the birth of his second child, he realized manufacturing had now become a passion.

“I asked management, ‘How do I get off the third shift?’ They replied, “We’ve been waiting for you. We want you to do more. We’re glad you want to stay in the food industry,’” he said.

"We spend a lot of time at work, and your coworkers do become your second family. I try to make our time together rewarding and fulfilling.” Dwayne Hughes, Hearthside Food Solutions

During the next 30 years, Mr. Hughes’ journey included business unit manager at Quaker Oats, plant manager at Nabisco in Indianapolis and multi-plant managerial positions at ConAgra Foods and Ralcorp Holdings. That’s where he met Rich Scalise, Hearthside’s founder, current chairman and chief executive officer, who recognized Mr. Hughes’ operational talent and ability to transform corporate goals into groundbreaking initiatives that continuously improve the production floor. These operational strategies also provide a game plan, from a team-minded perspective, to integrate acquisitions into the company.

They are also the strategies that eventually became a process called Hearthside Performance System (HPS), which now sets the standard for taking visionary objectives down to the plant floor. From a leadership perspective, HPS makes Mr. Hughes and Mr. Scalise a perfect fit.

“Rich is very aggressive and very demanding,” Mr. Hughes said. “My job is to complement him by saying, ‘This is what the c.e.o. is expecting, so let’s see how we can develop a workable, actionable plan.’”

Mr. Scalise likes that attitude and the structured, teamwork approach that melds his company’s concepts into execution. When Mr. Scalise ventured out to form Hearthside in 2009, he recruited Mr. Hughes and three others to form the core management team.

“No one on our founding team has had more impact on Hearthside’s operational success than Dwayne Hughes,” Mr. Scalise said. “He has translated our vision into strategic operating plans that are born of flexibility, structured on continuous improvement and fueled with leadership culture. Dwayne not only invented HPS; he also personifies it. He is a leader in the truest sense of the word. Every Hearthside employee, customer, vendor and investor has benefited from Dwayne’s talent, determination and expertise.”

Mr. Hughes appreciates the compliment, but he stressed that the voyage to creating a world-class manufacturer is one of continuous improvement. That’s the never-ending journey. It’s what HPS — and his life — is all about.

Dwayne Hughes

Seeking world-class status

As an All-American college athlete and renowned overachiever, Mr. Hughes personally owns the philosophy about striving to be the best in the world when it comes to co-manufacturing. That’s the strategic initiative behind HPS, which incorporates the best of lean management, standardization and organization into an everyday operation.

In 2009, Mr. Hughes developed what he calls the “pillars of success,” which include KPIs that Hearthside’s internally taught “subject matter experts” who now educate employees on baseline programs to execute systems within the first three months of an acquisition.

“We have several hundred people trained who can implement the shop-floor toolbox that we developed,” Mr. Hughes said. “My role has changed to now helping the senior management look at the value of our next acquisitions, providing a lot more due diligence during the process and developing the future of the company instead of the tactical plans that we have in plants today. That’s how it changed.”

With acquisitions, the HPS process strives to ensure progress going forward.

“When we get the keys to the car when we own a company or asset, the first things that we note are the baselines, then we bring the leadership onboard, develop the roadmap and tools they need to succeed, and execute the 100-day plan,” Mr. Hughes explained. “That process includes putting the KPIs or a baseline in place, turning all plants into cost centers, then pausing and implementing SAP [enterprise software].”

After executing SAP within 18 weeks — a process that was difficult in the early days of the company — the focus fast-forwards onto phase two. That’s simply the next of step of HPS’ continuous improvement strategy that’s led to the transformation of Hearthside into a top-class operation and its evolution as a co-manufacturer for some of the largest multi-national baking and snack companies in the world.

Hearthside 2.0

When it comes to its customers’ brands, Hearthside’s philosophy is laying the foundation for customers’ sales and marketing expectations. That led Mr. Hughes to implement HPS and build an organization that emphasizes production at its best.

“When you get to know Hearthside, you realize how fast and flexible it is,” Mr. Hughes said.

Last year, Hearthside commercialized close to 1,000 products, which is more than the total number he oversaw during his first 20 years in the food industry before joining the co-manufacturer.

Dwayne Hughes“I like to say, ‘If you can bake it, we can make it,’” Mr. Hughes said.

From his perspective, Hearthside is all about safely creating quality products efficiently. But in Dwayne’s world, manufacturing excellence goes beyond his football background, something he understands all too well.

“There are a lot of similarities between organized sports and business,” Mr. Hughes said.

One is coaching, another is mentoring and the third and fourth are teaching and listening — all of which require a philosophy of leadership that reflects the life of an organization. As a football player, he’s learned that all members of the team need to perform their roles to win every day. And he practices what he preaches, one of the fundamental values his Presbyterian minister grandfather instilled in Mr. Hughes — values he fulfills in his everyday life.

But he has taken those beliefs to the next level with what can best be described as “Dwayne-isms” by his friends, but they more seriously reflect the baseline of leadership that’s integral to manufacturing’s success. In fact, Mr. Hughes developed them through leadership training and pursuing continuous improvement — he not only teaches it but also lives it.

So, what is his advice on leadership success? His full-page list includes 11 of them, but his advice primarily notes “satisfaction is the beginning of failure.” That’s when an organization becomes “complacent with its performance and creates the moment it plateaus that eventually leads to extinction,” he said.

Another formula is “P=A+E.” At a previous company, Mr. Hughes remembered how he had to fire someone just after becoming a burgeoning supervisor, and his boss at the time gave him this worldly advice. Simply put: “Performance equals ability plus effort.” Management provides the ability to succeed. Employees provide the effort. And to top it off, Mr. Hughes observed, “It’s okay to be impatient with poor performance.”

Those hard lessons — extremely tough ones that Mr. Hughes learned — fuel thriving companies. Comfort is not in Mr. Hughes’ zone. To drive success, he believes in creating a sense of urgency, being a catalyst, hiring people who “think, concentrate and dream,” and demonstrating confidence with one’s feet on the floor. Yes, he always remembers the third shift that started his life in manufacturing and encourages everyone to “be afraid of failure.”

From a production standpoint, that’s like the Boy Scouts’ version of “be prepared.”

Life of continuous improvement

As an athlete, Mr. Hughes is a huge fan of exercise, believing in physical fitness because it relieves stress and fuels the body and soul with energy plus self-confidence. He needs that energy.

“We have a saying here, ‘The speed of an organization is set by the pace of its leaders,’” he said. “Management sets the direction, vision and design and works on educating employees to get them committed to the process.”

His early-morning positive attitude is based on another of Mr. Hughes’ personal philosophies, namely that, “Life is short. Don’t waste it. Keep your mind right and head up. There is always something to be thankful for. Keep your priorities straight. As a leader, you have to get things done. You have to make things happen,” he said.

But not everything goes according to plan. An avid bike rider, Mr. Hughes’ goal was to ride 1,000 miles this year. He only made it to 600 miles. Perhaps work got in the way.

“No one on our founding team has had more impact on Hearthside’s operational success than Dwayne Hughes." Rich Scalise, Hearthside Food Solutions

He’s also an avid — albeit struggling — auto mechanic. When he retires, he wants to rebuild his 1982 white Corvette with red stripes. He already took apart the car. After the parts sat in the garage for months, his wife boxed up all of them and put them in offsite storage.

Structure — and putting the pieces together — are critical not only to Mr. Hughes’ job but also to his life. Monday through Friday, his family knows that he is committed to his career, which often requires travel to the operations he oversees. On Saturdays, as he puts it, Mr. Hughes is his wife’s employee.

“I may be painting a bedroom or seeing a movie,” he stated. Sunday afternoon is reserved for family. However, in the evening, Mr. Hughes goes back to work on presentations and preparation for the week ahead.

That’s the life of someone committed to manufacturing. It’s a career that has earned Mr. Hughes Baking & Snack’s Operations Executive of the Year.

In anyone’s world, not just Dwayne’s, there are certain achievements that everyone owns. Nobody can ever take them away. When receiving Baking & Snack’s award, Mr. Hughes lifted it up — proudly, but also just a bit modestly — and said, “I guess I can now add this to my list.”

That’s the spirit of an All-American.