CONCORD, N.H. — Saying he wants to devote more time to changing national food policies to help consumers, Gary Hirshberg is stepping down as the CEO of New Hampshire's Stonyfield Farm and handing over responsibilities of the organic yogurt company to the former CEO of Ben & Jerry's.
Hirshberg, of Stonyfield, will remain as chairman of the Londonderry company, overseeing its European divisions and other initiatives. The 57-year-old Hirshberg said Thursday the company is in great shape and the change leaves him time to focus on U.S. food and agriculture policy. A Democratic activist and fundraiser, he also wants to spend time on efforts to re-elect President Barack Obama and support a New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate for the 2012 election. Hirshberg said he is not running for governor.
Walt Freese will become Stonyfield CEO on Jan. 23. He was CEO of Ben & Jerry's in Burlington, Vt., from 2004-2010. Hirshberg says Freese will be an amazing successor.
"Finding somebody who can run not a seven-cow operation as we were once, but a $400 million company who understands that they're not going to have the benefits of producing cheap food and spending a ton of money on advertising is not an easy person to find. In Walt Freese, I just couldn't be more thrilled, I think he's the right guy," Hirshberg said.
He said he first approached Freese — his only candidate — about the job in 2010, after Freese had left Ben & Jerry's and was taking some time off.
Freese, also 57, was chief marketing officer for Ben & Jerry's before he became CEO. Before that, he served as president of Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colo., and held senior management roles with Kraft/General Foods and Nestle.
"This is what I want my life to be about ... working for businesses that both can be strong and vibrant financial enterprises and contribute in a meaningful way to the world. This just seems to me to be the perfect fit," Freese said.
Stonyfield Farm is owned by French food company Danone, one of the world's biggest yogurt makers. Danone initially invested in the company in 2001. It sells Stonyfield, Oikos and YoKids yogurts, among others.
Hirshberg said he wants to concentrate on various agricultural policies, especially food labeling. He helped form a broad coalition of farmers, businesses, unions, health groups and others called "Just Label It," calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, like many other countries do.
"We as consumers really do have the right to know what's in our food," Hirshberg said.