Keurig co-founder Dick Sweeney brews success
“What I take the greatest pride in is that I was given the opportunity to incubate something that has created jobs.”
By Dan Margherita
Dick Sweeney’s first adult experiences were shaped by three consecutive October events. “In October 1966, four months after graduating from high school, I was drafted into the U.S. Army.”
The next October took him to Vietnam, and the following October brought him home to an unsupportive climate. Twenty-five years later, Sweeney co-founded Keurig Inc, which today is a division of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR, Waterbury, VT).
“My role is different today than it has been for the last eight years,” Sweeney explains. “I’m more of an individual contributor than when I was head of Keurig’s global manufacturing and quality.”
Sweeney works on projects supporting the overall business operation, “picking up loose ends that will enhance other major programs.” He uses his experience and understanding of what the company’s needs are, what it can do, and how to fill gaps to operate more efficiently. He mentors and speaks at conferences and events.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve led the startup of two Asian offices,” Sweeney relates. “Technically, I’m president of Green Mountain Hong Kong and the legal representative and director for Green Mountain Electrical Appliances Technical Consulting (Shenzhen) Ltd. These are satellite quality offices that work face-to-face with our contract manufacturers and suppliers.”
Other than the Asian offices and his own admin, Sweeney has no direct reports. “I work on some other special projects. For example, I do research on other development office opportunities in Asia. I coordinate with other companies that have done that to find out if their experience is relevant to what we’re considering.”
Sweeney logs between 150,000 and 200,000 miles of travel each year. In the second half of 2013, he went to Singapore, China, Dubai, Finland, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
Learning business planning the hard way
Sweeney grew up in northern New Jersey. “In October 1967, I went to Vietnam where I served as a long-range reconnaissance patrol medic and a team leader.
“That’s where I received my real management training,” Sweeney says, adding, “without realizing it at the time. In long-range reconnaissance you operated in six-man teams. The idea was to go into enemy areas in a stealth fashion, gather intelligence, and sneak out. You had to plan your mission, lay out your contingency plans, and make sure that everybody was properly equipped for the mission.
“We also had to understand everybody else’s job and know exactly where we were. We had to know who our support groups were. Who was going to take care of you if you got in trouble? If you did get in trouble, what were your escape routes? All of this had to be planned out before taking the first step.”
He says this same kind of planning is good when starting a business. “I learned to take a job very seriously, but not take myself seriously. I also learned not to put limits on myself. It’s important to think clearly about the decisions you make and always have a contingency plan,” he emphasizes.
“The military was one of the best experiences of my life and one that shaped my thinking, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Return to civilian life
“In October 1968, I was discharged and returned state side,” he says. “I was not quite twenty-one years old and a veteran, which was not a very popular status back in those days. My first job was as a driver for UPS through the Christmas season.”
In 1970, he went to work for White Conveyor (Kenilworth, NJ), which makes automated garment sorting, storage and retrieval systems used by dry cleaners. “I spent ten years there and became enamored with manufacturing,” Sweeney says. “It was fascinating to see raw materials come in one door, then two hundred guys do something with it, and a finished product goes out the other door. I was intrigued with it and still am to this day.”
Sweeney enrolled at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ) in 1971 on the GI bill. After eleven years as a night student, he earned his 1982 BS in industrial administration with a focus on manufacturing technology.
In 1980 he joined Canrad-Hanovia, Inc (Newark, NJ), a manufacturer of scientific and ultraviolet lighting, and soon became vice president of manufacturing.
In 1984, Sweeney moved to consumer appliances manufacturer and importer V-M Industries as VP of operations. “We had a line of consumer appliances,” he says, “including an espresso machine. We imported them from France and Spain, and later I worked on a team to reverse engineer them and have them manufactured in Hong Kong. This was my first exposure to the manufacturing environment in China.”
At the same time, he was completing his MBA at Fairleigh Dickinson University (Hackensack, NJ). His thesis was titled “Opportunities and Obstacles to Doing Business in the People’s Republic of China.” He says with a smile, “Little did I know I’d be spending a lot of time there later.” Sweeney finished the degree in 1986.
In 1988 he returned to Canrad-Hanovia as vice president of manufacturing. In 1992, Sweeney founded his own management consulting organization, Liberty Resources, working with privately held manufacturing companies.
A year later, he met John Sylvan and Peter Dragone, the founders of Keurig Inc.
Sailboat race leads to collaboration
“It was happenstance,” Sweeney explains. “I had a crew mate in a sailboat race who told me about these two friends of his who were starting a coffee appliance company. He recommended that I talk with them.”
Soon after, the three met in Pawtucket, RI. “They began to describe what they had in mind and I was intrigued by two parts of their story,” Sweeney says. “One was the single-serve aspect of it, but the other, what I found most attractive, was the market they were targeting: the office coffee service market.
“John and Peter had the concept but didn’t have any product development experience. Neither had ever executed a product, and that was the experience that I was able to bring to the table. They were listed as founders and I was listed as co-founder.”
From 1993 to 1995, Keurig was self-funded. In 1995, the founders secured venture capital. In 1996, Sylvan and Dragone departed but Sweeney stayed on as the company’s vice president of engineering.
Investors gave the company twelve months to get to market or fold. “That experience became a case study at Harvard Business School,” Sweeney notes.
That’s a lot of coffee
In 1998, Keurig sold 1,394 brewers. “Today, annual production is north of 8 million brewers,” says Sweeney. “We have production lines that will do more than that 1998 production in a single shift.”
In 2006, Keurig was acquired by GMCR.
At Keurig, Sweeney’s responsibilities have included brewer engineering and service, packaging engineering, contract manufacturing and quality control. He holds several U.S. and international Keurig brewer and packaging patents.
“I believe that Keurig is my greatest career achievement,” Sweeney says. “What makes me most proud is that I was given the opportunity to incubate something that has created jobs. From three guys starting out in a Waltham watch factory, today there are seven or eight thousand people globally working in Keurig-related programs to build their own careers. That’s very exciting.”
Sweeney is an active speaker and lecturer on leadership and the entrepreneurial experience at many universities and organizations. He serves on boards at NJIT and Fairleigh Dickinson.
Reflecting on work, character and culture
“Whenever I’m introduced at speaking engagements as the co-founder of Keurig, I get credited with a level of brilliance that’s laughable,” he says with good humor. “I tell them that I’ll accept credit for a high level of persistence, but not brilliance.
“My brilliance, if any, has been in resource recognition, knowing what resources are needed, finding them and allocating them,” he adds.
Sweeney describes Keurig Green Mountain as a company with character rather than culture. “We have core values of trust, respect and responsibility: first for yourself, then for your colleagues, and then for everybody else. That’s something I brought back from the military, where you counted on each other one hundred percent.
“In the early days of Keurig, we developed a mantra of ‘smart work, hard work, teamwork,’ and whatever the issues are, focus on resolution. Sometimes the smart work fails. Then the hard work has to kick in and, ultimately, it’s the teamwork that will find a resolution and move us forward.”
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