June 18, 2018
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Portland-based Oakhurst embracing big change as it hits 90 years

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Tom Brigham and John Bennett are set to take over day-to-day operations at Oakhurst Dairy, based in Portland.
By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Who would have thought a 90-year-old would be so willing to embrace change?

Oakhurst Dairy, the family-owned business that’s in its 90th year, this Friday officially handed the leadership reins over to another member of the Bennett family and — for the first time — to a non-family member.

The company is one of several prominent Maine family-owned businesses that has turned to non-family members to help lead the company forward.

At Oakhurst, John Bennett and Thomas Brigham will be running the company together as co-presidents. Bennett, who was executive vice president and chief operating officer, will oversee plant operations, logistics, quality control and information technology.

Brigham, who joined the company in 1995 and was the company’s executive VP and chief financial officer, will head up sales, marketing, finance and administration.

Oakhurst’s board of directors met Friday to officially approve the arrangement, which was first announced last month. The two will head up a company with about 240 employees and annual sales of $110 million, taking in milk daily from farmers from Berwick to Dover-Foxcroft.

They take over from Bill Bennett, who will remain as chairman of the board but will step away from day-to-day operations. The dairy has seen several leadership changes in recent years, precipitated by the death of longtime Oakhurst head Stan Bennett last year at the age of 64.

In addition to the leadership transition, the company seeks to strengthen its market share in other New England states and introduce new products now under development. And the nonagenarian dairy is making a push into the world of social media, as well.

“It ties into what we’ve done for many years — try to understand what consumers want,” said Brigham.

Brigham and John Bennett began discussing the possibility of co-leading the company late last year. They talked about what each would like to do, what areas would fall under whose purview.

“There wasn’t a lot of overlap,” said Brigham.

They’re approaching the concept as a partnership, he said, with an emphasis on open communication. And, said Bennett, to keep a guiding focus on responding to consumer demands.

Both men will report to Bill Bennett as chairman, who also still will be out front as the company spokesman in advertising and other marketing efforts. And Bill Bennett will be there for advice, said his brother, John.

Transitions of leadership in family businesses come up from time to time, and not just on a generational basis. A number of prominent Maine businesses besides Oakhurst are family-owned, and many have brought in non-family leadership in past years, including L.L. Bean and Cianbro Corp.

Jane Hilburt-Davis, president of Cambridge, Mass.-based Key Resources LLC, a family business consulting firm, said she advises companies to think about succession plans early and often.

“That really is what is useful for the family business, if you think in term of long-term plans and who’s going to be able to get us there,” said Hilburt-Davis. “Does this person exist in the family now, or is this person going to be groomed?”

Hilburt-Davis, who is on the board of the Institute for Family-Owned Business in Maine, hasn’t worked with Oakhurst, and was speaking generally.

She said there is some anecdotal research that has begun to show that family businesses that bring in non-family leaders perform better, financially. That might reflect changes in family-owned businesses. Many have evolved toward a meritocracy, rather than just passing on control to the oldest child in a generation, she suggested.

“Family businesses are much more sophisticated now; they know how to pick good leaders,” Hilburt-Davis said.

And increasing numbers of companies are looking at co-leadership, perhaps realizing that finding one person with all the skills needed to run a company may be challenging.

The key to co-leadership is deciding in advance how decisions will be made, she said, and agreeing how stalemates will be solved.

“There’s bound to be times when consensus can’t be reached,” she said.

John Bennett said the family still plays a strong role both in leadership and operations at the dairy. Besides he and his brother, there are two sisters and a brother-in-law that work at the dairy. A nephew is on the board of directors (that would be the fourth generation in the family) as are two other Bennett sisters.

John Bennett said he had a basic bit of advice for other family-owned businesses that were considering transition steps.

“Look right at your own resources, and don’t forget your core principles and values,” he said.

For Oakhurst, Bennett said, a core principle has been listening to consumers. That’s reflected in some of the product choices the dairy has made over the years. In the 1990s it decided not to take milk from cows that had been treated with artificial growth hormones. That led to a lawsuit by chemical giant Monsanto in the early 2000s that the dairy eventually settled.

The dairy also produces orange juice that is 100 percent made from Florida oranges (also a consumer demand), and recently unveiled a commitment to only use American apples in its apple juice. Many companies that make consumer apple juice source the concentrate internationally with the leading suppliers being Brazil, Argentina, Chile and China.

“People are very in-tune to ingredients, and what changes,” said Bennett. “It’s ongoing, and that’s what we have to do.”

Other examples, said Brigham, include new value-add milk products that are fortified with different nutrients.

Bennett’s sister, Althea Bennett McGirr, has run that effort as head of customer service and consumer affairs. For years, she’s had ongoing dialogues with consumers, which developed into a web-based feedback system.

But recently, the company has pushed into social media, as well. On Monday, the company announced a new contest — Oakhurst Moments — where customers are asked to share their favorite stories about the dairy and its products with a photo, video, or written story on Facebook.

Brigham said he and Bennett hope to increase sales in Maine of Oakhurst’s non-dairy products, such as juice and iced tea by penetrating deeper into markets and increasing sales in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“We’ve had great success in the state of Maine,” said Brigham. “We’re looking to grow that, and strengthen our positions in the out-of-state markets.”

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