New CEO getting a read on Nutrisystem

Dawn M. Zier to Join Nutrisystem as President and Chief Executive Officer; Reader's Digest veteran brings analytics-driven multi-channel marketing approach, turnaround and leadership skills to the top job at Nutrisystem (Photo: Nutrisystem, Inc.)
Dawn M. Zier to Join Nutrisystem as President and Chief Executive Officer; Reader's Digest veteran brings analytics-driven multi-channel marketing approach, turnaround and leadership skills to the top job at Nutrisystem (Photo: Nutrisystem, Inc.)
Posted: January 28, 2013

For its new chief executive, the board of the weight-loss company Nutrisystem Inc. picked a veteran of the publishing industry.

On the face of it, helping people diet would seem to have little in common with giving them something good to read each month.

But as Dawn M. Zier explained, both Nutrisystem and her previous employer, Reader's Digest Association Inc., are, at their core, direct-marketing firms. They sell their goods directly to customers, spending large amounts on advertising and marketing not only to reach new customers but to keep and sell more products to existing ones.

In the 47-year-old Zier, Nutrisystem hired the first female executive in its 40-year history in November. The board wasn't looking so much for a leader who would mirror its customer base, which is 70 percent female, as someone who could turn around the fortunes of a once fast-growing company.

Revenues for the Fort Washington-based company have declined from $776 million in 2007 to $401 million in 2011 and were flat for the first three quarters of 2012. Its fat bottom line slimmed down even more, with net income of $104.2 million in 2007 shrinking to $12.3 million in 2011.

Zier spent 20 years at Reader's Digest, running many different divisions, including International with $750 million in revenue and about 1,000 employees. Reader's Digest was often in turnaround mode during those years, and Zier said she was in the thick of it, trying to manage costs while using data gathered from customers to hone the company's direct-marketing efforts.

In an interview in the test kitchen at NutriSystem headquarters, Zier acknowledged the difficult job ahead but noted that "turnarounds can be fun."

When I suggested that not all executives within organizations might share that feeling, Zier added an important corollary. "If you know which way you are going, it is. When you don't, it's hard," she said.

With a bachelor's degree in engineering and an MBA, Zier loves nothing more than to solve problems. Improving profit margins is important to her, and she has pledged to scrutinize the income statements of every department to find savings.

But to Zier, the key to Nutrisystem's revival involves a return to the basics of any direct-marketing business: knowing who the customers are, tailoring marketing to reach and keep them, and analyzing the effectiveness of those marketing efforts.

As an example, she pointed to the 8 million names in Nutrisystem's customer database, which she said has been "underleveraged."

Diet and fitness firms often benefit from New Year's resolutions, because so many involve losing weight. I asked Zier whether she had a resolution for 2013, and she said, "To turn around Nutrisystem."


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

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