The CE-'Yo': Gary Hirshberg on Stonyfield's Green History

Yogurt Entrepreneur Shares His (Eco-Friendly) Secrets on Building a $300 Million Brand From a Seven-Cow Start-up

By Published on .

It is 1982 and Gary Hirshberg is gazing in horror at a "cartoon scene of chemistry gone mad" inside Disney's Epcot Center. Chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are "swooshing around the naked roots of anemic-looking plants grown hydroponically in plastic tubes." A Kraft exhibit created by the food and marketing giant to showcase its vision of farming's future sports animatronics with bizarre names like Miss Cheese and Miss Ice Cream. The food-people sing:

Your taste buds I'll appease.
I know how to please.
It's known that I am too good for words.
Oh, isn't that right, big boy?

Not a shining or particularly creative moment in Kraft's branding history, clearly. Walking away from the surreal scene, Mr. Hirshberg says to his mother, who has accompanied him: "I have to become Kraft."

At the time Hirshberg was running a struggling environmental research institute, growing organic food in a solar greenhouse. While the Kraft exhibit attracted 25,000 visitors a day, Mr. Hirshberg was lucky to get that many visitors in a year. To achieve his environmental ideals, he realized he "would have to prove they were profitable."

More than 25 years later, it's arguable Hirshberg has and hasn't become Kraft. As founder of Stonyfield Farm, which he opened in 1983, just one year after his Epcot heartwarming, Hirshberg has shown environmental ethic and profitability can coexist in a business plan -- long before "going green" became as common a brand position as the oft-cited platitude, "The consumer is king."

Mr. Hirshberg has built Stonyfield into the world's largest yogurt maker -- sales are expected to pass the $300 million mark this year. Sales growth has topped 27% for 18 consecutive years. Stonyfield passed Kraft's now-divested Breyers yogurt brand in sales nearly a decade ago. So yes, it's arguable Mr. Hirshberg now operates a mini-Kraft.

But his company is nothing like Kraft.

"I hate advertising," he admits in "Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World," likening it to conventional farming practices and the expensive use of petroleum-based fertilizer to "keep next year's crop of product users growing." Mr. Hirshberg grew Stonyfield with practically zero ad spending. He upended convention after convention as he built the brand: Paying twice as much for raw materials to make yogurt that would contain only organic ingredients, pushing for more government regulation of the dairy industry. And before going green was the thing to do, Stonyfield was the first manufacturer in the U.S. to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Surely Mr. Hirshberg could have devoted an entire book to the history of Stonyfield. But development insights aside, this is no ego-driven treatise or self-aggrandizing autobiography by a C-suiter seeking to cement his legacy.

For starters, the Ce-Yo, as Mr. Hirshberg's self-deprecating official title reads, writes intimately and in-depth about other companies. He doles out ample praise for competitors in his category, such as dairy maker Organic Valley, and major retail partner Whole Foods. Although he sprinkles the story of Stonyfield into bits and pieces of each chapter, he frequently diverges into an in-depth portrait of a company he admires: Patagonia, Seventh Generation, Honest Tea and Timberland are examples. Coupons at the back of the book urge readers to purchase from the sellers Mr. Hirshberg name-drops.

Although a good read, "Stirring It Up" contains a few lumps in judgment. Take, for example, Mr. Hirshberg's argument that "all it takes to make use of ecologically and sound and profitable ideas is willpower," a sound theory that's made little headway in resolving America's obesity crisis. But with boundless optimism comes passion. And Mr. Hirshberg's passion for business, the "most powerful force on the planet," is grounded in the hope that the "boundless thirst for profit that got the planet in trouble can also get us out of it."

I was left wondering whether Mr. Hirshberg could have better used the text as a call for action, driving his well-earned audience to a weighted debate against wrongful practices in his industry. As he praised the environmental ethic of a handful of companies, I waited in vain for him to throw barbs at the rash of greenwashing going on in corporate America today, as brands tout meaningless environmental claims with impunity.
Most Popular