President and Chief Executive Officer of Stonyfield Farm
Born c. 1954 in New Hampshire; married Meg; children: three.
Addresses: Office—Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, 10 Burton Dr., Londonderry, NH 03053.
Windmill builder; environmental education specialist for the U.S. government; led environmental tours to China; executive director, New Alchemy Institute, early 1980s; director, Rural Education Center, c. 1983; co-founder of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, 1983, and later president and chief executive officer; founder of O'Naturals, a fast-food chain, 2001; affiliated with the Social Venture Network.
Gary Hirshberg is president and chief executive officer of Stonyfield Farm, the world's largest producer of organic yogurt. The New Hampshire company, which began as a small organic farm, still abides by the original principals on which Hirshberg and others founded it back in the early 1980s: to make a healthy product and earn a profit without harming the environment. "Business is the most powerful force in the world," he told David Goodman, a writer for Mother Jones. "I believe that virtually every problem in the world exists because business hasn't made finding a solution a priority."
Like many of his generation, Hirshberg—who graduated from high school in the early 1970s—was a product of the counterculture era. Yet even as a child, he worried about the environment. The New Hampshire native was the son of a shoe factory owner, and recalled as a child seeing the plant's wastewater pour into an adjacent river, colored with dyes and chemicals. It awakened an early environmental consciousness, he told Organic Style years later. "I realized that the world I assumed would always be there might not," Hirshberg explained.
Hirshberg spent much of the 1970s pursuing his interest in ecology and the environment. He learned how to build windmills, harnessing wind power for energy, and worked as an environmental education specialist for the U.S. government. For a time, he even ran environmental tours in China. By the early 1980s, he was the executive director of the New Alchemy Institute, a nonprofit research center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that published studies on organic farming, aquaculture, and renewable energy sources. He also became involved in a New Hampshire scheme called the Rural Education Center, founded by former aerospace engineer Samuel Kaymen as an organic farming school.
In 1983, Kaymen asked Hirshberg, then a trustee of the Center, to become its director. The institute was struggling to stay afloat, and the pair came up with the idea of selling the organic yogurt it was already making to bring in some revenue. They started with seven cows on the eighteenth-century farm Kaymen owned, called Stonyfield, and the yogurt quickly gained a devoted local following. A 1987 plan to expand, via a partnership with a dairy in nearby Greenfield, Massachusetts, fell through when the dairy went into bank foreclosure, and Hirshberg and Kaymen went back to milking the cows themselves. "My wife calls it the days of darkness," Hirshberg recalled of that period in an interview with Louise Witt in the Boston Business Journal.
Hirshberg and Kaymen finally managed to grow their business by putting together a group of nearly 300 investors. Some were friends interested in socially responsible businesses, while others were venture capitalists who believed that the U.S. market for organic dairy products had terrific potential. After building a 20,000-square-foot plant, Stonyfield Farm thrived during the 1990s, enjoying a growth rate of nearly 20 percent annually, and introduced new products such as frozen yogurt. Eventually, however, the venture capitalists wanted more of a return on their investment, and Hirshberg—now president and chief executive officer—struggled with the decision over whether or not Stonyfield should become a publicly traded company. When his wife, Meg, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, Hirshberg and Kaymen—board chair for the company—entered into a corporate partnership with Group Danone. The French giant is the parent company of Dannon yogurt, and received a 40 percent stake in Stonyfield in exchange for its $100 million investment.
The Danone deal allowed Hirshberg and Kaymen to pay off their original investors, and gave Stonyfield access to an impressive distribution network and marketing muscle. Furthermore, they had agreed to it only on certain conditions: that Hirshberg would remain CEO, and that Stonyfield would be allowed to maintain its environmentally conscious corporate policies. It uses dairy-farm suppliers who pledge not to use bovine growth hormone (BGH), for example, and touts various social issues on its packaging. "There's no doubt I had to choose which devil to dance with," he admitted in the Mother Jones interview with Goodman. "If I didn't have to give shareholders an exit, I wouldn't have done this deal…. But I did have 297 partners. And I feel I did a deal with the best devil out there."
Hirshberg is active in various organizations aimed at increasing consumer awareness for the environment, or which promote socially responsible business models. He is active in the Social Venture Network, which hosts several Social Venture Institute forums for business leaders annually across the United States. He also oversees Stonyfield's generous Profits for the Planet program, which donates ten percent of the company's profits to environmental organizations. Recipients of its largesse in 2005 included the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Healthy Food, Healthy Communities, a group that provides organic produce to low-income families via the federally funded Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. The company also runs a "Have A Cow" program through which families, schools, or even individuals can adopt one of the Stonyfield Farm bovines. The company is also involved in a program to install healthy snack-food vending machines in schools; by 2005, there were 900 of them in seven states.
Hirshberg is also a founding partner of O'Naturals, a chain of fast food restaurants in New England that serves fresh, organic fare. The idea for this venture, which is separate from Stonyfield Farm, originated on a road trip Hirshberg and his family took along the California coastline. They assumed they that healthy food would be easy to find in the notably health-conscious state, but were surprised to learn otherwise. A self-described radical hippie in his earlier years, Hirshberg now runs a company that was expected to post revenues of $250 million in 2006, but he asserted that he had come to terms with what his peers back in the 1960s might have called selling out. "My role as father and perhaps one day grandfather, and as a man who loves this planet, requires nothing less than shelving my own rebellious instincts in favor of this run at the biggest prize of all—market dominance," he told Pamela Accetta Smith, a writer for Dairy Field. "Commerce is the most powerful human force on earth, and only by marshalling this force can we hope to begin to restore our planet to a place that will support and nurture life."
Boston Business Journal, November 4, 1991, p. 10.
Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 18, 2004.
Dairy Field, June 2002, p. 1.
Inc., November 1, 2001.
Mother Jones, January/February 2003.
New York Times, September 6, 2000.
Organic Style, November 2004, p. 79.
"Our Main 'Moovers,'" Stonyfield Farm.com, http://www.stonyfield.com/Aboutus/OurMainMoovers.cfm (September 21, 2006).