PORTLAND, Maine — It’s the end of an era for Oakhurst Dairy, the dairy processor owned and operated in Portland by the Bennett family since 1921.
On Friday, Oakhurst announced it had been acquired by Dairy Farmers of America, a national farmer-owned cooperative based in Kansas City, Mo.
The sale to DFA, which represents 13,000 farmers around the country, is the end of a 92-year independent streak for Oakhurst.
Bill Bennett, chairman of Oakhurst’s board and a third-generation member of the Bennett family to manage the business, told the Bangor Daily News that the deal would not have any effect on Oakhurst’s 210 or so employees, its management team or the 70 independent Maine farmers who supply Oakhurst with their milk. The company will continue to operate as it has in the past and consumers won’t notice any changes, Bennett said. However, Bennett will transition from chairman to senior adviser.
Employees were informed of the sale on Friday, the day the deal officially closed. Financial details are not being disclosed.
DFA approached Oakhurst about eight or nine months ago about being acquired, Bennett said. While Oakhurst has over the years avoided the consolidation going on in the dairy industry — unless Oakhurst was the one doing the acquiring — Bennett said DFA approached the company at the right time.
“They seem like a great fit and the timing seemed good for us,” Bennett said. “As the Bennetts are getting older we look to the future. We have been thinking over the last few years, ‘what can we do to best assure the best future for the company?’ and DFA really offered us that sort of opportunity.”
At the moment, there’s no fourth-generation Bennett family member involved in the management of the company, but Bennett said that’s not the sole reason behind the family’s decision to sell.
“This is about what is best for Oakhurst,” he said. “Our family believes that the investment by Dairy Farmers of America, a farmer-owned co-op, is the best fit for the long-term success of Oakhurst, the continuation of our values as a brand and service to our local communities, especially in today’s rapidly consolidating retail and manufacturing environment.”
He said, however, that the sale is “somewhat bittersweet” considering how long his family has run the business.
“But it’s more sweet than bitter,” Bennett said. “I’m kind of at the end of my career, so this is an exciting way to see the company move ahead. The Bennetts are involved and will stay involved. I feel better about it every day.”
Bill’s brother John Bennett is co-president of Oakhurst. He will remain in that position, along with the other co-president, Thomas Brigham, who became the first person to manage the business who was not a member of the family when he was appointed in 2012.
John Bennett said the sale was not precipitated because Oakhurst is struggling financially. Oakhurst had roughly $100 million in sales in 2013.
“Our market share is steady and we’re a leader in fluid milk sales in Maine and in northern New England,” John Bennett told the BDN. “We just see this as an opportunity to grow and improve.”
DFA, based in Kansas City, began in 1998 as a cooperative to represent dairy farmers’ interests in the industry and has grown over the years to encompass milk and ice cream processors as well. Besides Oakhurst, the cooperative recently acquired regional dairy processing facilities and brands in Connecticut (Guida’s Dairy), Minnesota (Kemps), and Maryland (Dairy Maid Dairy).
“Oakhurst is a good fit with what we’ve put together so far,” Pat Panko, chief operating officer for DFA’s fluid milk and ice cream division, told the BDN.
DFA represents about 70 dairy farmers in Maine. However, this deal has nothing to do with forcing Oakhurst to buy from those farmers instead of the 70 independent farmers from whom Oakhurst sources its milk.
“Every business we’ve bought we have not changed the composition of our milk sourcing at any one of those businesses,” said Monica Massey, a DFA spokeswoman. “Finding a home for our members’ milk has nothing to do with our investment strategy in fluid milk and ice cream.”
Bill Bennett reinforced that claim.
“That was very important to us right from beginning, that our farmers not be affected by this in that they remain independent,” he said, adding that becoming a DFA member is not a condition for farmers to continue to sell their milk to Oakhurst. “So we’ll be dealing with farmers as we always have … but we’ll have the backing of a very strong, farmer-owned cooperative.”
Bill Bennett said a conference call with Oakhurst’s farmer advisory board was scheduled for Friday and a meeting is scheduled early next week with all of Oakhurst’s farmers to provide them an opportunity to ask questions.
Another thing that won’t change, Bill Bennett said, is Oakhurst’s investments in the community. Oakhurst will continue to give 10 percent of its pretax profits to local charities that support childhood and environmental health, he said.
“As we grow, that will actually grow,” Bill Bennett said. “This is good for the community, not just for Oakhurst Dairy and Dairy Farmers of America.”