Stonyfield co-founder Gary Hirshberg created a bit of a stir in New Hampshire’s business press when he announced he was stepping down as CEO and moving over to the Chairman role. We recently spoke with Hirshberg about his 28 years at Stonyfield, his role in the natural food movement, and how the growing organics market is struggling and succeeding.
But of course, this move raises a key question: How will Stonyfield be run under new leadership?
So we sat down with Walt Freese–most recently former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s–and Hirshberg’s hand-picked successor–to discuss the transition and the future of Stonyfield.
Q: Gary Hirshberg has been very up-front with the fact that he specifically selected you to take over the company. Could you describe how that came about?
A: Gary and I have known each other for at least five years. We got to know each other at first through being in aligned-values-type companies. We shared suppliers and things, and from there, we develoed a friendship. And Gary first talked with me about the idea of taking over at Stonyfield when I was leaving Ben & Jerry’s [in 2010], and we both found that it wasn’t the right time. For it to be a good fit for both of us, it would have to be at another time.
And of course, I’ve been a fan of, and consumer of, Stonyfield for years, and I think eaten my weight in their product each year. So when things did started to change back in November of last year, Gary did reach out to me…and we had a great conversation that lasted the afternoon, and that was really the impetus for the move today. I couldn’t be more excited, more honored to be selected for this role by Gary who I consider to be a real icon in the world of values-led business and sustainability.
Q: Could you delve a bit more into why the timing wasn’t right for you to take over as Stonyfield CEO back in 2010?
A: My career ambitions and the role I wanted to play in a company versus what Gary was thinking at that point in time, weren’t aligned. We did this in a very collaborative way…We mutually reached this conclusion. Gary’s role [now] is very different [from what we discussed to years ago]. In some respects [we would] have had overlapping roles in the context of a CEO-President type relationship. As much as we wanted to work together, we both agreed it wouldn’t be the most functional relationship for the company or for us personally. And meanwhile, I was quite happy to take some time off, to see my family, who I didn’t see much of working with Ben & Jerry’s.
Now, I think Gary and I are very clearly aligned in our roles, and I think it reflects the creativity and flexibility of a business like Stonyfield to leverage the abilities of everyone in the business. [From] hourly employees on up to senior management, we need to be more creative, [and] not in lock-step with old paradigms in business. [This also] gives Gary a chance to focus on specific aspects [of the business] and more ways to be a visible public advocate for the environment, labeling, transparency, and organic [food].
[The position at Stonyfield] will be very similar for me, to the role that I played at Ben & Jerry’s. I’ll be CEO and President with full responsibility of CEO and President. All the members of the executive team will report directly to me. Gary will not have an office in the building, so [he] won’t be involved in the day to day management of the Stonyfield business. But I’m very glad that he’s going to be involved as Chairman of the Board…Probably the most important contribution he will make [as Chairman] is the talent that he has to be such an articulate advocate and spokesperson for the environment, organics, transparency in food labeling and more. So I know it will be a very positive working relationship.
Q: What kind of work did you do at Ben & Jerry’s?
A: I had been devoted for quite some time to working and focusing my life around values-led businesses, businesses that weren’t just money making enterprises, but were making a positive impact around the world, and making that a clear part of their mission. [With] Ben & Jerry’s [that work involved] taking a business that had really lost a lot of its energy [and profitability] and reinvigorating it…And after 10 years, that had already been accomplished, and I was ready to move on to a new challenge.
Q: Could you describe the corporate culture of Ben & Jerry’s and that of Stonyfield?
A: The cultures are very similar in that the organizations tend to be non-hierarchical, they tend to be flat organizations that encourage openness, transparency, and a true values orientation in everything that the company does. And what that does is tend to create a lot of positive energy in the building, and that positive energy, when channeled correctly, tends to result in fantastic products…and everything that comes out of that company is real and authentic, because it is authentic. It comes out of the people who work there every day.
Q: And what are some of the differences between the cultures of the two companies?
A: One of the things, certainly, is that Stonyfield is more focused on specific areas of corporate social responsibility in terms of leadership…they’re specifically focused on the environment, on sustainability, on organics. Whereas Ben & Jerry’s tended to be a bit more diffuse in its focus. So Ben & Jerry’s tackled a wide variety of issues from social and economic justice, to the environment, to community, and so on. And there were always a number of discussions at Ben & Jerry’s about whether we’d be more effective if we narrowed our focus and focused on fewer things. But I wouldn’t change either [company]. [They’re] both successful [and have made] transformative change in the world, and we’re all better off for it.
Q: Stonyfield’s been a fixture in New Hampshire and in the organic food movement nationally. What’s the direction you see the company taking in the future?
A: I see tremendous potential for the business to grow faster and to drive sales as we work to help people become more aware of the the benefits of organic foods in general, and organic yogurt in particular…If most Americans actually understood the foods they’re putting in their bodies–and where they came from–they would make very different choices. And those choices would lead to healthier human beings and a healthier planet. So the first order of business is driving sales by increasing the awareness of the benefits of organic foods in general, and organic yogurt in particular. Number Two is making sure that we have the manufacturing capacity to keep pace with the growing demand for our products. And at the top of that list, I would put the growing demand for [Stonyfield product] organic Oikos Greek Yogurt, which I believe has unlimited potential. And the third is innovation. And that’s innovation in new products, in ways of communicating with our consumers, in ways of really being creative across our business, that will attract more consumers to Stonyfield and increase the consumption of existing Stonyfield fans.
Q: Organic foods tend to be perceived as more expensive. Given the struggling national economy, do you foresee any issues coming up with Stonyfield? Do you have plans to market to people who might actually be turned-off by the organic labeling on price perceptions?
A: First, I think people need to understand the fact…that when they’re ingesting foods that are not organic foods,very often, they’re ingesting pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and other things that have either been demonstrated to adversely affect health, or where the jury was still out in terms of the implications on human health. And this is nowhere more true than in the United States. We’re literally walking tests for the rest of the world. So for example, genetically modified foods are broadly available in the United States, and there are not strict labeling requirements. Where if you look at broad swaths of Europe, Latin America, Asia, you need to clearly warn consumers that a product contains genetically modified ingredients…As one doctor told me…’The more I understand about the human body, the more I understand the most important medicine is food!’ So many of the prescriptions that are being written today are being written because of the food choices people are making
I think so much of this, I’m very much sensitive to the issue of price when it comes to organic products, but what I do believe is that if more of the people who have the income and the education to choose those products do chose those products, prices will come down, the market will expand, and organics will become available to more and more people. And I have really no doubt from personal experiece that that is one of the biggest differences, that companies like Stonyfield can make in the world. Not only is it better for our health, it’s better for our planet.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Gary Hirshberg has been somebody that I have admired as really a visionary leader in values-led business, corporate responsibility, and environmental sustainability. And I feel very honored to have been selected by him for the role of CEO and President.
*Freese was at Ben & Jerry’s from 2001-2010. He was originally Chief Marketing Officer, and three years later, was promoted to CEO. He also did two stints at Boulder, Colorado-based Celestial Seasonings, from 1984-1988 and again from 1998-2001.