Meet the Women Behind Some of McDonald’s Most Iconic (And Essential) Ingredients—And How They’re Setting New Standards

It’s hard to think of a trip to McDonald’s as an act of solidarity with small businesses—the fast-food chain has more than 38,000 locations in more than 100 countries. But that’s because you haven’t met Trina Bediako and sisters Erin Tolefree and Cara Hughes, the dynamic women in charge of supplying McDonald’s with everything from hamburger buns to the syrups that flavor cult favorite menu items like the Shamrock Shake.

Baldwin Richardson Foods

Cara J. Hughes, Vice President, Baldwin Richardson Foods [left] and President Erin Tolefree [right]

Bediako is CEO of New Horizons Baking Company, which supplies McDonald’s with bakery staples like English muffins and hamburger buns. And Tolefree and Hughes, president and vice president of Baldwin Richardson Foods, respectively, make the fast-food giant’s nugget dips, hot caramel and many other fan-favorite flavors.

Both companies have been working with McDonald’s for decades, serving as the invisible glue that allows the fast food giant to meet the quality expectations of loyal customers around the world. It’s quite a company, but it hardly seems like it, as the women talk about their work with poise, humility and passion about the impact they have globally and in their own communities.

“People don’t realize that McDonald’s doesn’t make anything, but this allows us to make an impact in the community,” Hughes says. “When you walk into our plant and see all the beverage syrups going through the line, that’s the moment of truth for us, where we say, ‘Dang, we’re really feeding America all these flavors!'” And if people don’t know [we’re] do it, it’s okay because it’s about our people.”

Related: McDonald’s is adding four new secret menu items to its real menu

Although Bediako and the Baldwin Richardson sisters did not know each other before being connected by McDonald’s, their rise to leadership roles has followed a similar path. Businesswomen took over the family business of the older generation and became the first female leaders to run the companies, bringing new visions, innovation and strength.

Founder and President (and Father) of New Horizons Baking Company, Tilmon F. Brown [left] and CEO Trina Bediako [right]; photo courtesy of New Horizons Baking Company

Bediako, who says his father “did [her] work 16 years before donating [her] best job,” he was pursuing a career in telecommunications when he agreed to help with the family business. “I was happy with what I was doing, but I also knew it was important to work with my father,” Bediako recalls. “I packed my family and I moved my three kids to rural Ohio, and I’m not sure they were ready for me.”

For more than a decade, Bediako learned the intricacies of the business before becoming CEO in 2017. Bediako admits that when she joined the business, she “thought she was ready to be.” [CEO],” but now acknowledges how much she had to learn before landing the lead role.

When Bediako joined the family business as director of HR in 2003, it had two facilities and 185 employees. It currently oversees four facilities and employs more than 500 people. Bediako has focused on innovating to stay relevant by maintaining high standards for the products that New Horizons produces. She believes that in order to remain profitable and maintain a positive and productive work environment, it is crucial that the company changes as the industry and the world around it does.

“Our world is changing, the industry is changing, our economy is changing,” says Bediako. “I always like to joke that ‘It’s not your dad’s McDonald’s anymore.'”

Although his father laid the foundation for the company, the world looked different when Bediako took on his role as CEO, and he knew he had to go the extra mile to help the company thrive and keep the employees happy. employees The biggest difference Bediako recognized was that, unlike in his father’s time, employees now look for more than just a paycheck to stay happy and productive.

Related: Improving employee retention by taking a people-centric approach

“Benefits and salary, OK, what else do you have? What’s your culture? How diverse are you? We’re just different leaders,” says Bediako. “I have a very diverse team with different skills, and each one is solid in their own right.”

New Horizons’ sales revenue has grown to its highest level ever under Bediako’s leadership, which she credits with restructuring the company to emphasize a positive employee experience.

“I think to be a strong leader you have to listen first,” says Bediako. “You have to care enough about what your employees’ needs are and be willing to make the change. We want to be the employer of choice and the manufacturer of choice.”

Related: Listening Will Make You a Great Leader

Sisters Tolefree and Hughes also followed their father into the family business and prioritized making smart changes as they stepped into leadership roles. Baldwin Richardson Foods, the facility that produces everything from hot fudge to McNugget sauces for McDonald’s, has not only expanded under the sisters’ leadership, but also taken major steps to remove barriers to success and create opportunities for others.

Related: How a borderless company is creating equal opportunity around the world

“We’re very grateful for that, but we also understand that this was an experience that not everyone grows up with,” Tolefree says. “We know we are here because of the people who came before us. We have an obligation not only to demonstrate excellence every day in the way we operate our business, but also to create these opportunities for others. Nurture our soul.”

Baldwin Richardson is committed to extending equal opportunity to the younger generation, and in addition to regularly working with children and high school students, the company sponsors two four-year full-tuition scholarships to Babson and Spelman universities each year .

“Our dream really is to take the burden of paying for school off the table so these kids can go through and own their own business and pass it on,” Hughes says. The goal, the sisters say, is to provide greater access to opportunities for minorities in business.

“There’s no shortage of black women or entrepreneurs with great ideas and the ability to make them happen, but I think the difference is that they’re given fewer opportunities,” Tolefree says. “So that’s something that we’re trying to change through the philanthropy and community work that we do — just being able to open the door and take away some of the myths about how we act and present ourselves and lead.”

Related: How These 3 Female CEOs Are Driving Change in the Workplace and Equality for Working Moms

The women behind McDonald’s Essential Ingredients are doing more than delivering the flavors and products customers love, they’re setting the standard for the next generation of female leaders in traditionally male-dominated industries like manufacturing.

“Cara and I have the pleasure of seeing ourselves reflected in our daughters, who for years have been mimicking what they see us doing on the phone; they say, ‘Hey, do you have these commands?'” Tolefree says. “I hope we’re building this next generation that doesn’t even think there’s a difference when it comes time to show up.”

Related: 5 TED Talks by Powerful Women Leaders Who Inspire and Motivate

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