The Freeman Company may be the world’s largest provider of brand experiences, but the business’s roots are actually quite humble. Originally established as a solitary, family-owned party store in Iowa, it spent 2017 celebrating its ninetieth anniversary in grand fashion. Dawnn Repp has been with the company for the past eighteen of those years, and during that time she has seen Freeman evolve in ways she never could’ve imagined.
Repp was hired as Freeman’s very first in-house counsel, and she now serves as executive vice president and chief legal and administrative officer. She jokes that she remembers a time when the now-global company had to be reminded that Canada was in its jurisdiction. “When I first started, the company was around $850 million in revenue, with operations in the US and Canada,” she says. “Today, we are at $2.6 billion and in thirteen countries.” Repp has spent much of her tenure contributing to the company’s vast expansion. And, in addition to assisting Freeman with acquisitions and forays into new territory, she has also helped draw new businesses and talent by serving as a leading advocate of the company’s focus on culture, diversity, and sustainability.
Freeman’s good reputation goes back a long way, as evidenced by the fact that it wasn’t a company Repp had to familiarize herself with when signing on as in-house counsel. She’d already heard of it because her father, an insurance broker, was a longtime provider for the company. Repp says people at Freeman today still remember that relationship. “[Freeman] was my dad’s largest and favorite client,” Repp says. “What I really learned from my father growing up was that service to the customer was paramount—that you need to put yourself in their shoes to truly be successful.” Repp took the lesson on empathy to heart and still calls upon it, approaching her role at Freeman as a business partner first and an attorney second.
Since joining Freeman, Repp has helped orchestrate a continued effort to redefine the company’s identity for the modern era. “We have truly evolved from this idea that we were just a logistics company,” she says. “We’ve transformed into a design-thinking organization, where we are really focused on brand experiences.” That’s a much broader category of business than Freeman was focused on even a decade ago.
Repp credits Freeman’s ease of expansion not only to its ingenuity but also to its culture as a family-owned company. “The people and companies that we have acquired are very excited to join Freeman,” Repp says. “Our culture speaks for itself in the marketplace.” Repp sees Freeman’s focus on integrity as integral to its success going forward, and it’s more than simply policy; it’s a state of mind. “If you have a question about whether or not something is right,” Repp says, “the answer is: ‘would you be embarrassed to tell a member of the Freeman family about it?’”
Reputable company culture has come to mean many things for Repp, including an emphasis on diversity, and she’s dedicated a great deal of time and energy to making Freeman a leader in the field. For example, along with three other women, she helped found the Freeman Women Development program. Initially started in 2011 to promote female leaders, the group has since expanded its scope (and changed its name to Forward) to promote diversity and inclusion of all kinds. “The least-performing teams are people that all think alike,” Repp says. “We have to have diversity of background.”
Repp’s focus tends to be forward looking. As part of a Freeman team tasked with examining sustainability, she and other company representatives recently traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to examine new ways to operate sustainably without increasing Freeman’s use of resources. Repp says it’s an issue she’s passionate about, and she’s continually encouraged by Freeman’s commitment to sustainability.
As Repp and her team chart Freeman’s ongoing evolution, she believes its family focus on values and integrity will continue to guide its direction. After all, it’s worked for the past ninety years. “They started out decorating frat houses at the University of Iowa and became a global $2.6 billion company—all the while keeping the amazing culture intact,” Repp says. “I think the Freeman family has done pretty well for themselves.”
Forward, initially founded as Freeman Women Development (FWD), has continually sought advancement not only for women but for all leaders who value diversity. Since its inception in 2011, the group has established twenty-two volunteer-staffed chapters, boasting 1,700 members in total. The group has achieved a high profile in a short period of time and aims to achieve Freeman’s more overarching vision of a workforce strengthened by diversity of experience. Here’s a look at what it has achieved and hopes to achieve in the near future.
It provided leadership mentorship opportunities for eighty pairs of women and men last year.
Local chapters provide opportunities for employees from different parts of the company to interact and empower each other.
It has a goal to put women in half of all leadership positions by 2025.
The group aims to make Freeman a creative and inspiring employment destination that leads by empowering those who value diversity.