Entrepreneur Owner-Manager Background
Allison Hooper and Bob Reese met at a farm-to-table dinner hosted in Vermont in the 1980’s. Bob was working in the Agricultural Department for the State of Vermont and Allison was making goat cheese at a family farm in Brookfield, Vermont. Allison learned the craft of making goat cheese as a summer intern in France between semesters in college. As the story goes, Bob needed to find a locally sourced Vermont goat cheese for a signature lamb dish being prepared by a leading Vermont host chef. Allison agreed to make the goat cheese and attended the dinner. That night, several of the chefs told Allison they would buy her goat cheese instead of imports from France if she could make it reliably. The idea of Bob and Allison teaming up to start a Vermont goat cheese company was born that very night, and in 1984, Vermont Creamery was officially started.
The early years were quite a struggle with many moments of “are we going to survive?” Along the way, friends and family supported the dreams of Bob and Allison by providing critical investments into the company. No matter how you count it, building a creamery filled with stainless steel equipment, storage tanks, aging rooms and packaging machines is really expensive. The company reinvested its profits (when it had any!) back into the business or repaid expansion loans from the banks.
Over the next 30 years Vermont Creamery (www.vermontcreamery.com) grew its product offering to include premier goat cheese, aged goat cheeses, specialty cow products such as Crème Fraiche, and European styled cultured butter. The business grew from a local business into a regional brand that won over 100 national and international industry awards. Large customer accounts helped propel Vermont Creamery to become a truly national brand within the specialty goat cheese category and pioneered the artisan cheese making movement in America.
True to their Vermont roots, Allison and Bob created an extremely vibrant employee culture. They became a B Corp and bought a goat farm to improve the sustainability of Vermont's goat milk supply. Allison and Bob’s spouses often played roles in the company and over the years, three of their children were working at the Creamery in a variety of roles. Remarkably, the founders had tackled their leadership succession exceptionally well by mentoring Adeline Druart from intern through many roles, ultimately promoting her to President.
We strongly encourage you to view a 5-minute Vermont Creamery video: A Cheese and Butter Love Story (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRP57omLjz0)
The specialty cheese industry was going through significant change and consolidation. In fact, most of Vermont Creamery’s high-end regional competitors had been acquired by large global cheese / dairy companies. While Vermont Creamery maintained a quality and reputation advantage, some of these brands were investing tens of millions of dollars into new facilities. Bob and Allison realized in their heads that it was time to do something, but their hearts were far behind. They knew that as they approached their mid-60’s one (or both) of them may want to slow down, travel more, and spend time with their grandchildren.
There remained a lot of unanswered questions. How can founders retire if all their savings are tied up in the business? Would it be fair to retire and not repay the friends and family that invested in the business? How do you repay the existing investors when the company needs capital to keep growing? What type of investor would make the most sense for the next ten years? How do you figure out which acquirer would be best for the future of Vermont Creamery? What will happen to the B Corp status? How will this affect our children? How will the community react to another Vermont gem being acquired? How do we keep this quiet while we figure it out? Is our company worth more than our competitors? Will the next owners want our goat farm? Will they continue to support the Vermont goat farming community? What should our personal roles evolve into?
“Thank you for shepherding us through what ought to have been a train-wreck of a process. You expertly led this Enterprise Value PEREGRINATION….your diligence, wisdom, and hand-holding assured us every step of the whey. What a splendid outcome, leading us to Life’s next magical offerings.” Donald Hooper, Shareholder Vermont Creamery, Inc.
“After years of thoughtful planning and a rigorous selection process, we are confident that we have found the best steward of our business, values, and people in Land O’Lakes. We are both respected dairy brands with deep connections to farmers and an unyielding commitment to quality and innovation.” Bob Reese, Co-Founder Vermont Creamery, Inc.
Allison and Bob sought Bigelow’s advice on the long-term sustained success of the Company. Over several years Bigelow helped them navigate through their personal, family, and professional objectives. After three decades of pouring their hearts and souls into their cheese making passion, Allison and Bob reached the conclusion that it was time to pass on the legacy of what they had built. Finding an owner who shared their same values was essential. Naturally, like most successful privately-owned businesses, the co-founders had received overtures from strategic acquirers over the years and had even had preliminary conversations. The owners believed that the next partner would surely be one of a pre-identified four, but reluctantly agreed to let Bigelow bring forth some additional potential partners.
Bigelow received multiple offers from financial and strategic potential partners. The owners wanted to meet with the previous four relationships but also agreed to add four new conversations that Bigelow had unearthed. Meetings ensued, and the group was winnowed down to only the most compelling. To truly assess the qualitative fit, Bigelow went with the founders, their spouses, and President, Adeline Druart on a four-country journey to meet with executives and to visit their cheese making facilities.
One of the new groups that Bigelow brought into the fold stood out from the rest in terms of fit, enthusiasm, valuation, and transaction terms. They appreciated the goat cheese innovation and quality, but also brought a unique channel expansion opportunity to the cultured butter product line. A variety of factors led this group to propose multi-million dollar investments into the creamery in Websterville, Vermont over a relatively short time frame. On the qualitative side, being farmer-owned, having a long-term outlook, being very well capitalized and demonstrating support of family farms and values across the globe aligned extremely well with Vermont Creamery’s beliefs.
Ultimately Bob and Allison selected Land O’Lakes, Inc. (www.landolakes.com), one of the largest farmer-owned co-ops in the United States, as the next majority owner of Vermont Creamery. The two companies shared a common passion for quality products and rural farmer values.
As part of the transaction, Land O’Lakes invested significantly to grow capacity and enhance the capabilities of Vermont Creamery. Co-founders Allison Hooper and Bob Reese transitioned to advisors and brand ambassadors for the business. The Hooper family retained ownership of the Ayers Brook Farm (supplier of goat milk) and both founders continue to promote and develop the Vermont goat milk shed.
Vermont Creamery was the second cheesemaker in the world to earn B Corp certification and under their new ownership maintained this certification and commitment to their community, employees, and environment. Vermont Creamery President Adeline Druart and the leadership team remained in place, as did all employees, in order to drive growth while leveraging the resources and expertise of Land O’Lakes. In Adeline’s own words, “Bob and Allison have been such incredible entrepreneurs building Vermont Creamery’s success and mentoring the team on their vision and values for the business. Partnering with Land O’ Lakes adds the next key ingredients for our growth: additional resources and dairy expertise. This transaction positions Vermont Creamery for continued success in the future.”