Rise of the Female Breadwinners: Dawn Lafreeda 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SARAH BROOKE LYONS
  • Photo by Sarah Brooke Lyons

Dawn Lafreeda

52; partnered
Children: Twin sons, 9
Job title: President and CEO Den-Tex Central, Inc.Estimated household income: $100,000
Education: One year of college

Are you a native San Antonian? If not, when did you move here?

No, I was born in Philadelphia, but I grew up in Orange County, Calif. I moved here in 1986 when I got the opportunity to open my first Denny’s. My first restaurant was in San Angelo, but then I moved to San Antonio and bought a Denny’s there.

How did you become the primary breadwinner?

I think it started from being self-employed. I’m an entrepreneur so I work for myself and create my own destiny of building more restaurants. I’ve had the opportunity to earn more with owning my own company. I needed to be self-employed.
There were no ceilings. I was 23 when I bought my very first restaurant and at 23 you’re not thinking long-term. I knew I wanted to be self-employed so I went down that path where I created my own destiny. I created what I wanted. For whatever reason I didn’t finish school, or find a career path there, but I was recruited by Denny’s and they were going to pay me a lot of money for my age back then.

Describe your job:

(Laughs) It’s very busy. We have restaurants in seven states so there’s never a dull moment, anywhere, ever. I have my hands in everything and I have great team players at various levels. I sit in Denny’s franchise advisory board, helping make the Denny’s corporate brand better. It means I sit in a committee for Denny’s that designs what color’s we’ll use for new Denny’s, what marketing promotion to put in place. This all helps run my business. I invest a lot of time in committees; I’m very involved in developing and remodeling new stores. I’m always looking for new sites. Lately I’ve been renegotiating leases, franchise agreements and buying businesses from other franchisees. During the last month I’ve been focusing on three restaurants that I’m buying, financing [and] leasing.

Is your job now the career you’d always thought you’d have?

Yeah, I think it is. I always knew I’d be self employed; I didn’t know what it was going to look like or what it was going to be, but it’s everything I hoped and probably more.  There’s not a lot of females in the industry that have as many locations or are doing as many businesses. I wanted to have 10, 20…we have 75.

What is your dream job?

I’m doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be self-employed, and I wanted to make that dream happen. I’ve had the chance to create what I wanted to be, and I can always change what I’m doing. It’s never dull. I’m really living American dream, I started as a waitress.  

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I love being able to go in and put in a new Denny’s (in new markets). It excites me to give people jobs, give a community a great new place to eat. Developing the brand and putting in new Denny’s is what excites me.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Still doing what I love to do. I don’t know how many restaurants I’m going to have at that time or what it’ll look like, but I’ll still be very involved. I’ll probably still be building Denny’s.

What age do you expect to retire?

I used to say 50, but I think I’m going to keep doing it for as long as I love doing it. I make my own schedule, and I make time for my children. I don’t see myself, professionally, ever really retiring. It’s not in my plan at the moment.

What’s your biggest financial worry?

Business fluctuates with the economy. When things are good, business is good. My biggest worry is the uncertainty of the health care impact at the moment and the new laws going into place. I don’t understand what kind of financial impact it will have on me eventually. I always have to make sure I have enough to reimage my restaurants, meet payroll…do what we’re supposed to do. The uncertain things are the ones you can’t always place for like competition coming in across the street.

Are you able to save money on your current salary?

Oh, yeah. I’m able to save, sure. I don’t take an exorbitant amount on my salary. I take what I need to live. My savings are put into investments in new projects.

Has your career altered your personal life?

It’s enhanced it because of the opportunities I get to meet people, and people I get to engage with. I work with great people with great ideas. What alters it is how demanding it is and how it takes away from my family. But they partake in the benefits from me having my own business. It enables us to take great vacations, and have the nice car and the kids can go away to camp. There are rewards.

Did your mother work when you were growing up?

She did. Very hard. She was a district manager for Denny’s and supported three kids by herself.

Are you planning to always be the primary breadwinner?

Probably. I mean, when you’re someone who owns your own company, and you’re in control of your financial destiny…it’s how it works out. Would I like my partner to make more money? Sure! But, I’ll always be the primary winner. She worked as the regional director for the Special Olympics. Now she does all the human resources for us. That’s 2,7000 employees.

How has being the primary breadwinner affected your relationship(s)?

Um, we work together and we live together, but it’s worked out OK. I think sometimes you have to be careful not to take work home. It hasn’t really affected it. It can take you away, but everyone’s happier when you can incorporate. It makes for a better relationship that we work together. We travel. There’s strain that I’m not home to take care of the children or helping with household stuff, but I’m out there doing things for the better of the family.

How do you think society views female breadwinners?

You know, it’s an interesting question. I think it’s a different answer when you ask men or women. There are some men out there that don’t like that women can take their jobs. Women are empowered and it’s a great thing. There are enough jobs for everyone to let everyone work. I view women as a huge asset to the economy. Females now make a lot of decisions; they’re the decision makers when it comes to family, dining, shopping, travel. They’re not home cooking as much. I think they bring more to the economy. We’re eating out more, there’s more disposable income. We’re not in Ozzy and Harriet times; this economy requires two people to work.

What does “having it all” mean to you? Do you think you have it all right now?

Having it all means my needs are met, my family’s needs are met and that we’re all happy and healthy. I do. I think it’s always OK to want more, but I live the American Dream. I bought my first restaurant on credit cards and I turned it from one to 75. I’m grateful for the opportunities given and I do believe I have it all. The only thing I don’t [have] is youth. The years go by and life goes by quickly. I have a great family, great company, great employees and a great brand I’m partnered with.

Do you have parenting and childcare support from your family and friends?

Yes. I do. Not so much friends but from family. We never had to ask friends.
                          
Has having kid(s) altered your career path?

I would say no. I always have them in mind. I was already well on my path when I had them. Before I started (the franchises) it probably would have changed my path, my priorities would have been different. I had 40 restaurants when I had them.

How do you feel like our job market accommodates working mothers?

I think it’s better than it used to be. There are more women in the workplace and employers understand that. Now that I’m a mom, I’m far more compassionate than I used to be. It’s getting better. Employers need good people so you have to make a balance for everyone.

What’s the most challenging aspect of raising your kid(s)?

My kids are 9, so they’re not little anymore. I’ve heard it’s the terrible teens. But really, it’s juggling it all. Making it to the important things, being there. We have great kids who are flexible and go with the flow. It’s a juggling act getting to spend more time with them without letting things slide with them or with work. You’re always running, running, running to pick them up, to get to this, whatever. I’m lucky that I get to set my own schedule and I’m not required to do anything I don’t want to do. I can show up at 9 o’clock if I want to go to school with the kids. It’s hard to be a mother, a career woman, and juggler your family. You have to hope you have a great, understanding partner and you can both run it together. Everyone should have their dream. Women can have it all as well.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of raising your kid(s)?

It’s just such an unconditional love. It teachers you to love in a selfless way. It’s not until you’re a parent that you know. You might think you know, but you have no idea ... It’s knowing that a little person is dependent of you for everything; it’s a very loving, warm feeling.
I always say to women to always follow your dream and never be afraid to take your career further. Women hold themselves back because of family or children. There’s a way to do it so you can have both. I always encourage women in the workplace to follow their dreams, aspire and grow to what they want to be. Branch out. Take that next step. The world, America, is so accepting. More and more women are leading companies. It’s an exciting time for female executives.

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