“You don’t have to have your career vision established at the age of 22.”
Heather Neary grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Anne Beiler launched the farmstand business that would become the beloved snack chain that is Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. Auntie Anne was an icon in the region, but Neary, now 42, had no inkling when she was young that she would someday end up back in her hometown — running the Auntie Anne’s business. Here’s the inspiring story of how she got there.
My family were farmers. When I was 7 or 8, I told my mom that I wanted to be a farmer’s wife. It was really fun feeding the animals and playing with the little goats and sheep and chickens. My family expected me to go to college, but I didn’t understand what it meant to be choosing a career. I started at La Salle University, transferred to HACC [Harrisburg Area Community College], and then got my degree in English Literature at Millersville University.
I didn’t graduate from college until I was 24. I was having too much fun. My parents finally said, “We’re done paying for college. You need to finish up.” Listen, it was a good gig. My parents paid for two-thirds of my college tuition and I paid for the remaining third. I worked as a bartender. I coached the swim and field hockey teams. I went to class some days, other days I didn’t. But a lot of my friends had graduated at 22. They were finishing their graduate degrees when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, so I felt like I was behind the curve. I needed to prove that I wasn’t a screwup.
Two days after I graduated in May of 1999, I moved to San Diego, California, with my roommate. I didn’t have a job or a plan. My parents weren’t sending me a check every month for my rent. That was a big step for me in my growth as a person and being independent from my family.
I was looking for a “real job” but I waitressed in the meantime to pay my bills. I wondered what was next. Was it my life’s dream to work 12 hours a day in an office, or was it more fun to make my own schedule? I didn’t really have a clear vision.
After temping at a tech company, I took a job as an editorial assistant at a monthly technology magazine at Advisor Media. The content was a little dry for me. The articles were about writing code to get certain things to happen in your sql database. I felt unfulfilled. But I still worked hard. I was always eager for more, and taking on new responsibilities. By the time I left Advisor Media three years later, I had been promoted to managing editor.
I met my husband in San Diego. He already had two young daughters. We talked about having more children, but decided to focus on the girls. He was in the Marine Corps, and in 2002, when I was 27, he got a job in New York City. When we moved and I had to find a new job, I could have applied to another publishing position, but I decided to start over with a job in marketing. It seemed more exciting to me.
I knew that I’d be starting over at the bottom. I got a job as a marketing assistant at Esselte Corporation, a European office supply company. I was basically a glorified secretary and I took a huge pay cut. I was making lunch plans for my boss and making her travel plans. Luckily, my husband was super supportive and we could afford to live on his salary and my very, very modest marketing assistant salary.
Early on, I told my boss that I wanted to do more marketing work and get to know the business. She was a tough boss, but she was instrumental in helping me come into the marketing field. I started to understand what it means to be passionate about a job. You don’t care how many hours you spend working; you care about the work that you produce. I loved the creative work. I loved being able to go on sales calls and see the results of our work come alive in presentations.
At my first performance review, I had to submit a self-appraisal where I gave myself marks using a red dot, yellow dot, or green dot. I gave myself a bunch of green dots. She said, “If you’re green already, what else do you have to learn?” She really instilled in me a sense of looking hard at myself and asking myself those hard questions.
In early 2005, my husband had orders to go to Japan for a year. I had been promoted to associate brand manager at Esselte, and I didn’t know if I wanted to go with him to Japan or stay in New York by myself. I decided to try to find a job in Pennsylvania to be closer to my family. I made a list of companies headquartered there and Auntie Anne’s was on that list. I got a job there as a marketing manager position.
I say this with all respect to Auntie Anne’s: Our old offices used to literally be in a farm field. It was my first or second day of work, and all I could smell around me was the spring planting. If you’re from a farm town, you know that means the spreading of manure. I walked out to my car, thinking, “I just left an awesome job in New York and now I’m in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, surrounded by horse manure. Did I just throw my career down the toilet?”
I was tasked with handling all the marketing efforts for two new initiatives that Auntie Anne’s had. They both were challenging, but I was really feeling a passion for the brand and the company. At a brand this size, you can try different things and you’re given a lot of flexibility. About six months in, I went to visit my husband in Japan. I said, “I really love this job. I want to figure out a way to make this work for us.” He was able to be stationed at Quantico, Virginia, which is two and a half hours from Lancaster. He would leave for work on Monday morning and come home Friday night. It was hard for him to make that drive, and it was hard for us to be separated Monday through Friday for four years until he retired, but it allowed me to continue to grow here at Auntie Anne’s.
When I was a marketing manager, I reported to the CMO. Early on, she asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I said, “I would like to have your job.” In hindsight, maybe that was a little obnoxious, but she was awesome. She said, “Oh, that’s interesting. What do you think you need to do to get there?” It was important for me to be honest with her. I did want to grow into her role.
My old boss at Esselte told me that I wasn’t going to get very far without an MBA, so while I was at Auntie Anne’s, I started an MBA program at Penn State and went to class two nights a week. I was 31. I had a house, a dog, my husband was gone Monday through Friday, and we had the girls during the summers. Auntie Anne’s paid for a decent chunk of the program. They were very clear when I started that they would support me, but it wasn’t necessarily going to equate to a pay raise or a promotion. I knew that if I finished my degree, it would give me a leg up on other people competing for jobs, so even if I didn’t stay at Auntie Anne’s long-term, I would have that MBA.
When my boss at Auntie Anne’s was leaving the company in January of 2008, she recommended me for the CMO position. I was appointed interim CMO for a few months, and ultimately, I was offered the position. And I still had a year left in my MBA program, which I finished in 2009.
I’ve moved up quickly but I’ve also made mistakes. There have been times where I’ve ended up in arguments with people that were very unprofessional. Once, a colleague and I were in a meeting. I didn’t agree with what he was saying and I argued about it with him in front of other people. Then he came into my office and he was not happy with me for questioning him in a group setting. We got into a pretty loud argument about it. Other people heard it because my office door wasn’t closed. As the chief marketing officer, I shouldn’t have been having that conversation in a setting where my team heard me yelling. I remember that incident like it was yesterday. I knew when I was in it that I was not doing the right thing, but I was too upset and angry to stop myself.
I later sat down with my team and apologized for my behavior. I also apologized to the individual that I was arguing with. It’s important that no matter what mistakes you make in your career path, you learn from them. Waiting 24 hours is always a good idea. Nothing will be resolved by angry outbursts.
In my mid-thirties, I set a goal to be president of a brand by the age of 40. I was building my experience in order to get there. In addition to overseeing the marketing arm of the company, I had all of operations reporting into me, and I was learning more about the financial side of the business. I had conversations about my goal with lots of different people that I worked with. Most of them thought my timeline was aggressive, but that made me more driven to prove them wrong.
After about seven years as CMO, I’ll be honest, I was getting a little bit bored. I updated my resume and started reaching out to my network of contacts. I didn’t feel like I was going to be president at Auntie Anne’s any time soon. My predecessor had left the company and the role was open. I wanted to move on and continue to grow in my career. I had turned 40 and had missed my goal. I was disappointed in myself.
In November of 2015, Auntie Anne’s offered me the role of president. For the first time since the founder Anne Beiler sold the company in 2005, a woman was going to be at the helm again. It was super exciting but a little terrifying. It’s a huge responsibility.
A lot of running a company is about planning for the future — looking at what we need to get done this year, what we need to get done next year, what kind of resources we’re going to need moving forward. I do have to deal with challenges at times, whether it’s a franchisee who’s in financial dire straits or a franchisee who’s not operating their store in the way it should be handled. I spend a lot of time talking with people. There’s lots of time on the phone and in meetings with individuals — listening to them, understanding what their concerns are and how we can address those concerns as an organization.
When I first came into the role, I met with every one of the 117 employees at the Auntie Anne’s corporate office. I talked to them about what they love about their job, what they would do differently if they could, what challenges they have in their job, and how I can help them in that.
One thing that I heard over and over again, not just from employees but also franchisees, was the need for more consistent, transparent communication. I became really intentional about communicating every single thing under the sun to every single member of our staff and all of our franchisees. I very candidly say to some people, “There are times when I’m going to make a decision that I feel like is in the best interest of the Auntie Anne’s brand. You individually might not like it, but recognize that I’m making the decision for thousands of stores.” Even if they don’t agree with it, understanding the why behind the decision is important.
You don’t have to have your career vision established at the age of 22. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 22, but my experiences as a waitress and bartender back then still inform what I do today. Working in the service industry and having to interact with customers, some of whom might not be in the best moods, really prepares you for any role that you take. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have the same perspective that I do on what it’s like to work in our stores.
When I was 22, my goal was not to be president by the time I was 40. Figure it out on your own terms and on your own timeline. Know that whatever you want to do, you can do it if you want it. You need to be willing to ask for help. You need to be willing to work everyday. I work hard. It’s not an 8 to 5 job for me. You need to speak up for yourself. You need to advocate for yourself. If you want something, you need to tell somebody and you have to go after it.
By Helin Jung