The Bennett Family Focuses on Health
and Community in Furthering the Oakhurst Mission.
They say imitation is the
sincerest form of flattery. For Portland, Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy,
it’s a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, seeing its main regional competitors
renounce the use of milk from cows treated with artificial hormones is a
vindication of sorts for the stand Oakhurst took against rBST when it was
introduced more than a decade ago.
On the other hand, the recent move by HP Hood and
Dean’s Garelick Farms takes away one of Oakhurst’s main points
of differentiation — one that the hometown favorite withstood a
lawsuit with Monsanto to uphold.
“Even though the FDA states that there is no
significant difference in the milk from cows treated with artificial growth
hormones, our consumers were concerned, and we listened,” says Stanley Bennett II,
Oakhurst president.“Oakhurst milk carried America’s first farmers’
pledge not to use artificial growth hormones. Oakhurst has never had them
and never will.”
That FDA disclaimer was added to Oakhurst’s
of the 2003 settlement with Monsanto, maker of artificial hormone Posilac,
which challenged the on-label “farmers’ pledge” against
the use of rBST.
But the competition jumping on the bandwagon
doesn’t necessarily foretell a drop in demand for Oakhurst milk, the
brand leader in northern New England, or a drop in enthusiasm among the
Bennett siblings who own and manage the family company. Since Dairy Field’s last visit
to Oakhurst five years ago, the company has spent millions to upgrade its
infrastructure, adding filling and storage capacity and making other
improvements that will allow Oakhurst to build upon its equity in northern
New England and expand its foothold in Massachusetts.
At $92 million in annual sales and growing (including
Oakhurst-branded milk, ice cream mix, fresh and UHT creams, sour cream,
cottage cheese, juices and drinks, plus co-packed products), the Bennetts
have big plans for promoting the healthful aspects of dairy products under
the Oakhurst brand. Key to that strategy is their Nu-Trish brand,
Oakhurst’s venerable probiotic milk product that’s being looked
to as a wellness platform.
“Nu-Trish is potentially the first in a platform
of products that could be more health-focused,” says Jim Lesser,
director of marketing. “Theindustry has done a great deal of research on milk and the
benefits of milk. MilkPEP is doing a good jobtodaycommunicating some of the benefits of milk. There will bea lot morefocus coming back on this most nearly
perfect food. Our industry already has a healthyplatform in dairythat can be leveraged more. The
associations are doing as much as they can to promote the health benefits
of dairy, but it will takea brand owner to really drive the message to consumers. I
don’t believe there are any brands today really driving that
Home and Away
It’s the family’s connection to the
community and its closeness to its supply chain that have helped keep
Oakhurst ahead of its competitors on its home turf. They’re now
hoping the “natural goodness of Maine” message will resonate
with more consumers a little farther south.
“It’s a very competitive marketplace,
that’s for sure,” says John Bennett, vice president of sales.
“Our brand-name recognition is incredibly high in Maine and gaining
all the time in the rest of New England; New Hampshire is very strong as
well. We try to offer a higher-quality product, a great level of service
and the touch that an independent, smaller, family-owned business can
Lesser elaborates: “Oakhurst has consistently
stayed in front of the consumer, with advertising, consumer promotions and
community involvement. The company should be applauded for its efforts in
good years and bad of making sure it stays in front of the consumer,
talking about the product benefits. It’s a family-owned company, and
the family is very visible in the city and throughout the state of Maine,something our competitors
don’t have the ability to do.”
However, the Bennetts are cautiously aware that the
family connection might not play as well farther away from Portland.
“Right now, we’re trying to take that
message and translate it to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where the
focus of dairy has been that milk is just milk,” says Althea Bennett
McGirr, director of customer relations. “We’re communicating
the significant differences we have, our commitment to the community,
participation in local fairs and local sampling opportunities.We don’ttoot our horn about our family
as much out of state because that doesn’t resonate as much as the
quality of the product and our relationship with the farms and our
commitment to the BST-free product.”
For this fall, Oakhurst has launched a 10-ounce
plastic line for school milk that has been very well received by its
customers, including many new school contracts. Last year, the Bennetts
cooperated with the Maine Dairy Council in exploring new formats and
formulations for school milk.
“There was a lot of debate over whether it was
going to be 8, 10 or 12 ounce, but not a 16 ounce, because 16 ounceswas too much, and actually, for
a high school student, an 8 was too small,” McGirr recounts during DF’s visit in late August.
“We worked cooperatively with them to decide that we would developa 10-ounce. In the less than a
week that the schools have been open, I’ve never heard so many
unbelievably positive comments about our product.”
Beyond that, Oakhurst is ramping up its product
development efforts, working on some new concepts that are still under
wraps. “With all the good news on milk, we think it’s a perfect
opportunity for us to be finding out exactly what attributes and benefitsconsumers want,” Lesser
says, “and we will work to do that and come out with additional new
products in the near future.”
To that end, Oakhurst hired a nutritional consultant
to serve as a spokesperson for the company as well as a resource for
consumers at public events and the Oakhurst Web site. Pamela Stuppy is a
licensed dietitian with practices in Maine and New Hampshire whose
master’s degree is in nutritional science related to bone density
issues. She has written a book for health professionals on osteoporosis and
speaks nationally on the subject.
Having such an authority virtually on call for
consumers is just the latest way Oakhurst has endeavored to maintain a
close relationship with the public. Starting with founder Stanley T.
Bennett (grandfather of the four Bennett siblings who now run the company),
whenever a baby is born in Maine and New Hampshire, the family receives a
congratulatory card from the Bennetts along with a $10 gift certificate for
any grocery item — which most often gets used to purchase Oakhurst
reaching out to potential consumers at what is a very emotional time in
that person’s life, making a tight and lasting connection for that
person with our brand. Consumers appreciate our recognition of this event
in their lives and often call to say thank you,” Lesser says.
“That’s the level of commitment this company has had to its
market and its consumers, and Oakhurst has always worked toconnect with the consumer
Oakhurst follows up through age 12 with a kids’
fan club for Oakie, the company’s acorn mascot. The program offers
prizes, birthday greetings and coupons, and Oakie makes appearances at
community events. “We have tried to find really good opportunities
for Oakie to send a message that we really care about children,”
McGirr explains. “I think because Oakie doesn’t speak and
he’s so hands-on that as a mascot he’s really caught on and
works well for us. I get e-mails from people in California who have visited
in the summer and they went to a fair and they saw Oakie and they want to
join the club.”
That concern carries even further into
Oakhurst’s long-standing policy of donating 10 percent of its pre-tax
profits to charities concerning children and the environment.
“It relates back simply to the key tenets we run
this company on: family, community, service and quality,” says
William Bennett, executive vice president and chief operating officer.
“You can’t, nor should you, run a company and be successful
without contributing back to the community. It’s been ingrained in us
since we were kids, that’s this is what you’ve got to do.
That’s part of the deal. That makes us different than other
McGirr sums up Oakhurst’s key business obstacle,
which existed even before its competitors jumped on the no-rBST bandwagon:
“Being the little guy in a big market. We still are the little guy in
the dairy world.”
The size issue translates into the ability to deliver
a premium product in a price-driven, commodity environment. “We have
competitors with much larger operations and much greater economies of scale
in their production,” says Thomas Brigham, executive vice president, chief financial
officer and treasurer. “It’s a continuing challenge for
This challenge appears surmountable, as the Bennetts
foresee growth of up to 25 percent over the next five years.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s cultivating
that premium brand perception. “In the state of Maine, we’ve
got it,” Lesser says. “As we move west and south,our challenge is positioning
the brand in a believable waythat will enable us to sell a premium product.”
Looking forward, Oakhurst sees consolidation among
grocery retailers as a possible open door to expansion.
“There’s been so much change in ownership
of larger supermarkets. At one time it may have beenimpossible to get intoa chain in a particular
location; those opportunities are opening up,” McGirr says. “It
may not be that we are the least expensive brand they have, but we have the
quality they’re looking for, and ouremphasis on health and wellness does open up an
… and Within
Oakhurst’s family-oriented attitude toward its
consumers is directed at its employees as well. Whether it’s the
deferred profit-sharing plan and 401(k) with match, interest-free loans to
purchase home computers, paid fitness memberships or encouragement to
participate in community activities, the company refers to its low turnover
as “bragging rights.”
“Even when employees do leave for what they
believe are ‘greener pastures,’ most ultimately try to come
back within just a few months,” says Joseph Hyatt, vice president of
human resources. “We tend to involve more people rather than less in
making critical decisions about employees. Going the extra mile for an
employee in need is openly encouraged, rather than just accepted by the
And while consumers trying to reach the dairy are
likely to have someone named Bennett pick up the phone when they call,
management maintains an open-door policy for the work force.
“Ourmanagement style has changed over the years out of necessity. We have opened newdepots; we now have folks who
don’t come to this plant every day, who don’t see us,”
McGirr says. “We’re working on a new strategic plan that will
help us manage the growing number of remote employees.”
The uniqueness of Oakhurst Dairy appears to be rooted
in the activity of so many members of its founding family, who are
committed to the proper stewardship of their legacy as well as the
consumers and community theyserve.
“You have a business with a management team,
half of which is family. The family members are actively involved day to
day, and they are committed to the brand, our customers and, most
importantly, our consumers,” Lesser says. “They’re
passionate and they are humble, often referring to Oakhurst as ‘just
a little dairy from Maine.’ Oakhurst may be small in size, but
it’s huge in terms of the impact this company has and can have on the
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At its Natrel Division plant in St. Paul, Minn, Agropur makes rBST-free white and flavored milk, heavy whipping cream, half n half, buttermilk, organic milk, nutritional drinks and shakes and sport drinks. Nondairy beverages (soy, rice, coconut, and almond) coffee creamers, broth and sauces.
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