Organic foods' entrance into mainstream eating habits has placed enormous pressure on companies like Stonyfield Farm to keep up with demand. In response, the organic yogurt pioneer kicked off a $24 million expansion.
At the same time, Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield's president and "CE-Yo," has seen many conventional food producers working overtime to convince consumers that some foods, including those labeled as "natural" -- an essentially meaningless designation -- are just as good as organic.
Stonyfield's increased capacity and the need for stronger food policies were two of the leading factors behind Hirshberg's decision to step down from the company's day-to-day duties. As I reported yesterday, Hirshberg will move into a half-time role as chairman and maintain oversight of the company's European entities, Stonyfield Cafes and Profits-for-the-Planet program.
"The bottom line is now we have the company in a position where I can spend more time on public speaking, on writing and on the advocacy that I need to do, that the industry needs me to do," Hirshberg told me yesterday. "I also had to find right successor."
That successor is Walt Freese. The former Ben & Jerry's CEO has spent three decades in the food business, including stints as Celestial Seasonings' CEO and senior marketing positions with Kraft Foods and Nestle. At Ben & Jerry's, he tripled operating profit margins and doubled sales.
I had a chance to speak to both Hirshberg and Freese yesterday, and they gave me a glimpse of both the legacy and the future of the iconic company.
"I view Stonyfield as a billion dollar company even though we're in the $400 million range right now," Hirshberg said. "He's the kind of guy who can (get us there)."
Like Hirshberg, a famously early booster for the power of using business for good, Freese has long believed in the tenets of corporate social responsibility. About 15 years ago, Freese enjoyed success in his career but decided to take time off to figure out what he wanted the rest of his life "to be about."
"After those six months, it became very clear that whatever I did, I wanted it to be something that contributed in a meaningful, progressive way to people and the planet," Freese said.
He wasn't sure if that would take a for-profit or non-profit form but he had cultivated his greatest skills in the private sector and wanted to use those skills to "create positive and progressive change."
“When I join a company like Stonyfield," Freese said, "it’s because I'm embracing it with my head, heart and soul."
Freese sees three major challenges for Stonyfield as he readies to take the helm: educating the public about the benefits of organics, continuing to push the envelope on corporate sustainability and expanding its organic supply chain, particularly for Stonyfield's Greek yogurt line.
Hirshberg said he's been "trying to be the chairman for some time but the business wasn't ready. We had a furious growth pace for years. In the last year, we've witnessed an explosion with Greek yogurt, but we were unable to keep up with demand."
Coincidentally, a New York Times story yesterday described how the burgeoning Greek yogurt market has buoyed New York's dairy operations. Many laud Greek yogurt -- a thicker, creamier style -- for its health benefits, including higher protein and lower carbohydrate levels than the conventional variety. National retails sales of Greek yogurt doubled last year, excluding Walmart stores, the Times reported, citing research from Mintel.