SEVEN DAYS: How does this sale affect the future of Vermont Creamery ?ALLISON HOOPER: [Land O’Lakes] really recognizes that what we do well is not something they could do well — they don’t purport to understand it or want to change it in any way. They just want to invest in it, and provide us the resources to do what we do even better, and to do more of it. They walk into our aging room and they’re dazzled by our cheeses. They’re not going to tell us how to do that. They’re saying they’re going to take their cues from us.
SD: What about the company's mission?AH: Adeline Druart is the [Vermont Creamery] president still — Land O'Lakes has created a new division in their company for specialty cheese, which is synonymous with Vermont Creamery. So, at Land O'Lakes, she’s a vice president, and she reports directly to the executive VP of dairy foods. She’ll be right at the table when they get all of the company's divisions together, and she’ll have a strong voice.
SD: Will your other employees stay on?AH: We have 100 employees now, and everybody’s gotten a sign-on letter. They have a great benefits package — more vacation, more holidays. All hourly employees are going to get a dollar-per-hour raise.
SD: What does this deal mean for Vermont Creamery's production levels?AH: Land O’Lakes is going to quadruple the business in the next four years. They’re putting some serious investments in our creamery. They’ll connect the two buildings [we currently occupy], and they’ve been looking around at other buildings in the industrial park. They really want to have Vermont Creamery here and to have a foothold in this area, which is so near to northeastern markets.
SD: Will Land O’Lakes use your facilities to make its own products, too?AH: Land O’Lakes has said they absolutely do not have any plans for Vermont Creamery to be producing anything for [its brand]. We [have been working with] a consumer that [they] don’t sell to, but who they want to be selling to. They work with mass-market consumers, but in order to modernize their product portfolio and their customer base, they really needed to find a [company like] Vermont Creamery to do that. So, our going to market and being available really coincided with their thinking about how are we going to do this.
SD: Will you continue sourcing milk and cream from the farmers and co-ops you currently work with?AH: As far as the cream we buy from St. Albans Cooperative, as we increase our butter and crème fraiche and mascarpone, we’ll continue to buy from St. Albans. [Eventually], we’ll certainly exhaust their capacity, and we may have to buy milk from New York or look to other places. But it’ll be a while before we get to that point — they’re poised to supply us for a while. There’s a lot of milk on the market right now. So lack of milk is not an issue.
SD: Since you launched St. Albans, your first non-GMO cheese, demand for it has really taken off. Do you think you’ll be able to meet demand for that cheese, given your new access to larger markets?AH: We’ll certainly have to be much more careful about the growth of that cheese. We’re not going to splatter the world with St. Albans in the same way we will with our other products.
SD: When we spoke last October, you said you’d like to transition your entire product line to non-GMO eventually. Do you think that’s still possible?AH: It would be hard to do that right now — Land O’Lakes is a large, conventional dairy co-op — an agribusiness business. So it would not be in their wheelhouse to transition all of our butter and cheese to non-GMO. It’s not part of their thinking or their philosophy.
SD: How long did the acquisition process take?AH: About a year ago, we decided that we would start putting ourselves in the market. Prior to that, Bob and I looked at various scenarios — we did a daily expenses study for an employee-owned stock ownership plan. But we were growing so fast, and [our consultant told us] that was probably not a good option because of the fast growth.
SD: Why sell now?AH: For the past 30 years, I’ve been a student of cheese and studied these markets — but it really started as, “Hey, let’s make some cheese! Think Americans will eat this? Of course they will!” [Bob and I] were really good at taking enormous risks — we didn’t have anything at age 25. At some point, the business gets to a certain size, and you have 100 employees and you have systems and budgets and data.