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One-to-One with Lorna Donatone

One-to-One with Lorna Donatone

Sodexo's newest President/COO sees opportunity in the market continuum between foodservie in K-12 and higher education.

Lorna Donatone assumed her new position as chief operating officer and president of Sodexo's Education Market on February 1. In that role, she will oversee the company's foodservice contracts in the college/university and K-12 school segments as well as its facilities management services in those segments.

The move follows a 10-year career with Sodexo in which she earlier served as president of Spirit Cruises (since divested) and then as president of the company's school services division. Before that she held several executive positions, including stints as CFO with firms in the banking and software services sectors. Donatone is credited by Sodexo for having boosted sales and retention growth in the school services division and for her work in the areas of promoting diversity, mentorship and corporate philanthropy.

FM recently interviewed her at Sodexo's Gaithersburg, MD headquarters to get a first hand sense of how she views the company's opportunities in the education marketplace.

Foodservice in higher education and K-12 are quite different businesses. What are the advantages of managing them together?

The School Services and Campus Dining groups within Sodexo are distinct operating groups. The operations are handled separately, as is the Educational Facilities Solutions group. The client bases have different expectations and decision makers. At the same time, there are significant synergies in areas like new product development and consumer insights.

High school is really the pre-college market, for example. Our customers there want more of a college meal offering and experience. While the budgets are certainly different, and you have to adjust your menuing as a result, there are lots of areas of crossover.

What do you see happening right now in the larger picture of the K-12 market?

What I see, especially with the new administration, is a laser-like focus on school food and nutrition that is a huge opportunity for this industry. I anticipate there will be more regulation, not only of school meals but also of a la carte programs, and our focus on student well-being allows us to be prepared for change.

As reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act moves forward we will see changing nutrition guidelines and — we hope — more money in the pipeline in terms of reimbursement rates.

We take a holistic approach — nutrition's role in students' overall well being — and see school lunch and breakfast programs as broader than those specific periods of the day. For example, we do a lot of work in K-12 with school gardens — the education side of health and wellness — to help kids understand the impact of food choices on their bodies. Nutrition affects energy levels, cognition and readiness to learn. We are always looking for client solutions that achieve results in these areas as well as in meeting financial and operational requirements.

Management company penetration of the K-12 segment over the past decade has been slower than was often predicted. Do you see that changing? Where is Sodexo's best market opportunity?

One of the big questions when I came to the division was, why hasn't the outsourcing rate increased more over the years. There are different factors — one is simply that we are a for-profit company selling into what is essentially a non-profit segment. At the same time, it's a segment with very demanding financial issues and some districts are considering outsourcing that never have before. We have an opportunity to achieve success every time we go into a school district that has not been operating profitably.

Right now we serve about 480 districts in both suburban and urban areas. We do a significant amount of facilities management in schools and that area has had significant growth. It is a focus both from a strategic standpoint and as a sales and marketing opportunity. We are definitely moving toward a more integrated sell of facility and food services.

And the best opportunity in campus dining?

It is in serving the new generation of customers. Whether they are in K-12 or at college, our customers are much more in tune with what they are eating and how it will affect their health today than in the past. The opportunity is to design dining opportunities that play to that. It's also a generation that is much more 24/7 and technology oriented. That means new delivery options, including the use of technology to deliver information about food choices to them.

Again, we want to help our clients solve problems. If fund balances, financials or facility upgrades are challenges, it is our job to help address them. It is not just food and facilities, but positioning Sodexo as the go-to resource to help administrations address the broader challenges they face in higher education.

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