Stonyfield founder discusses new chapter with family firm

Danone sells Stonyfield to third-generation dairy company Lactalis

By April Hall

One of the founders of Stonyfield yogurt considers the 34-year-old business his fourth child — and he’s looking forward to marrying it off to a family firm.

Stonyfield’s previous owner, Danone, announced July 3 the sale of the organic yogurt company to Lactalis, a third-generation global dairy products company owned by the Besnier family of France. Lactalis generates about $1 billion in U.S. sales but has lacked a strong yogurt brand.

Gary Hirshberg, who co-founded Stonyfield with Samuel Kaymen in 1983 and is currently chairman of the company, says he looks forward to going back to the world of private companies.

“I learned a lot in the 15, 16 years with Danone,” Hirshberg says. “If I can ever avoid being a public company, I will certainly do so." He cites the pressure on public companies to produce high short-term return at the expense of long-term goals.

Stonyfield CEO Esteve Torrens and Hirshberg are just getting to know Lactalis management, but the chairman says the company is appealing. He says he has confidence in the new owners because they, too, have a passion not only for business, but also for a mission behind the business.

“The one thing I would say is, they just spent $850 million for a company with $370 million in sales,” Hirshberg says. “That’s an expression of passion and belief. I now have a strong motivation to prove them right. Hopefully this is a marriage of two passionate folks with two passionate missions.”

The current CEO of Lactalis, Emmanuel Besnier, is only the third CEO in the company’s 84-year history. His grandfather Andre Besnier founded the company in 1933.

Hirshberg says Lactalis’ investment in Stonyfield will help the New Hampshire-based brand improve its share of the yogurt market from 5% to double digits. Stonyfield, a direct competitor with Dannon (also a Danone brand), was often left in the shadows when it came to corporate investments.

Hirshberg says having a parent company that is also committed to organic farming and sustainability provides “the opportunity to influence Lactalis and for them to influence us.”

Danone first bought a 40% stake in Stonyfield in 2001, shortly after Kaymen retired in 2000, and then acquired an additional 40% in 2004. Hirshberg sold his and his family’s stake in 2014, after stepping down as CEO, giving Danone 100% ownership.

A driving force behind the Stonyfield sale is Danone’s pending purchase of natural foods company WhiteWave. The Department of Justice could have objected to Danone owning both companies in the organic dairy space.