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August 2004

August 1 2004 by Chief Executive

What can the sophisticated French leaders of a dairy-products giant learn from a natural-foods nut from New Hampshire?

Apparently plenty-if the guru is Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm. The Paris-based Groupe Danone, parent of Dannon USA, acquired roughly 85 percent of Stonyfield in late 2003, but CEO Franck Riboud wants more than a stake. He wants Hirshberg, cofounder of the feisty little yogurt company in Londonderry, N.H., to shake up the culture at Danone’s operations around the world.

Hirshberg helped found Stonyfield Farm in the late 1970s as an experiment by a not-for-profit organization that promoted organic farming. After he and cofounder Sam Kamen took the outfit commercial in the early ’80s, Hirshberg’s combination of business savvy and ethics-mindedness helped him create a lesser-known echo of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, located next door in Vermont. The $150 million Stonyfield far and away dominates the natural-yogurts business, not only in natural-foods outlets but also in mainstream supermarkets in all 50 states-not to mention online with a hip Web site that advertises “multiple organisms guaranteed.” Its brandname for its organic dessert yogurt is Moo-la-la.

Hirshberg has kept Stonyfield growing at an annual rate of more than 20 percent, in part by keeping the company nimble. In 1997, for example, within three months of hatching the idea for a new product for babies and toddlers, Stonyfield had YoBaby on store shelves. It also remains in step with its customer base, contributing 10 percent of profits to environmental causes.

It’s that agility and passion that Riboud is hoping will rub off at the bigger company. This summer, Hirshberg had his first meeting with executives at Dannon USA in Tarrytown, N.Y., and has met with the managers of Danone operations around the globe. “Sometimes I’m talking marketing with them, sometimes products, sometimes employee practices such as profit sharing,” says Hirshberg, 50.

He’s also teaching Danone about the organic craze, and advising Riboud on acquisitions. “He drills me and asks me what’s going on in the natural-products world,” Hirshberg says. “I’m kind of his scout in this segment.” Nobody is putting this CEO out to pasture any time soon.

-Dale Buss

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