Stonyfield Institute offers entrepreneurs inspiration, advice

Stonyfield Institute offers entrepreneurs inspiration, advice
By Jeff Feingold

Published: Friday, May. 27, 2005
‘Boot camp’ set for June 9-10

NH Business Review (subscription) – Manchester,NH,USA

The Stonyfield Farm Entrepreneurial Institute – described as a “boot camp” for community-minded entrepreneurs – will be held June 9-10 at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester.

Sponsored by the New Hampshire-based yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm and SNHU, the program will feature a format revolving around peer-to-peer learning, with entrepreneurs offering practical, hands-on advice to participants.

Designed for business owners and emerging entrepreneurs and executives of both for-profit and non-profit companies, the first evening of the event will feature “tales from the trenches,” offered by Gary Hirshberg, chief executive officer of Stonyfield, and Michael Swack, dean of SNHU’s School of Community Economic Development. The second day of the event will feature the pre-selected case studies of participants who will present their problems and concerns to different panels of experts. Among the topics to be addressed in the case studies are sales and marketing challenges, raising capital and management, organization and human resources.

Cost of the institute is $300 for for-profit businesses, $250 for non-profits and $200 for alumni and students. Cost also includes Thursday dinner and Friday breakfast and lunch.

For more information, contact Veronica Kamerman at 644-3101 or stony@snhu.edu, or visit snhu.edu/CED/ stonyfieldinstitute.html.

Launched in 1994, the Stonyfield Farm Entrepreneurial Institute – which will be held June 9-10 at Southern New Hampshire University — was the brainchild of the New Hampshire-based yogurt maker’s chief executive officer, Gary Hirshberg. The goal, he says, was to give entrepreneurs a chance to share with and learn from their peers how to navigate the often dangerous waters of owning a business.

Hirshberg and Michael Swack, dean of the School of Community Economic Development at SNHU – who has been instrumental in relaunching the program — recently discussed the upcoming institute, its target audience and ideas behind its format.

Q. How did you get the idea of starting the institute?

Gary Hirshberg: Stonyfield is a big business success now, but in the first eight years we went through what I call a period of darkness and storms. We weren’t even profitable. That was a period when I wished I could have been exposed to other entrepreneurs, people who could share their practical, day-to-day experience with me. I really suffered from the lack of exposure to other peers or mentors with small to mid-sized business experience.

So after we got through that period of darkness, I never forgot that desire or need.

Q. When did you first launch the program?

GH: We started this in ’94, and since then we have had about 30 of them, in New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, New York and Vancouver. It has evolved into a very practical, hands-on, intimate and safe place for entrepreneurs to get mentoring and get help and advice.

Q: What’s the program like?

GH: We cut to the chase. The best learning is through storytelling. We hear tales from the trenches, how this or that business got through the darkness, what they did when they were faced with a series of bad choices. We exchange a lot of stories and focus on the case study method. We invite participants to present their case or their problem. It’s all grounded, it’s not all theory, it’s not philosophy, just really hard-nosed stuff.

Michael Swack: It’s peer-to-peer learning. At the upcoming institute, we’ll hear from people like Gerardine Ferlins (of Cirtronics) and Howard Brodsky (CCA Global), people who have really grown their businesses, like Gary, from almost nothing to very strong businesses with a strong social mission as part of that. People will be getting together with others who have gone through this before and learn from them.

GH: Businesspeople by definition have their noses ground into the practical reality every minute, and when you hear some guy pontificating about academic theory, that’s a snooze. But when you hear the story about someone like Howard Brodsky and how he succeeded — that’s a page-turner.

Q. How successful has the institute been?

GH: We’ve got a long track record of success, of businesses that have benefited from this approach. We’ve had mergers happen, and people leave and set off in a whole new direction that quintupled their business. We’ve had people leave and go out and find their successor. It’s inspirational.

I get as much out of it as anybody who comes. I never leave without getting a couple of jewels, a couple of nuggets.

Q. You haven’t held one of these events in a few years. What prompted you to start it up again?

MS: For many years we’ve done a number of institutes and been deeply involved in microenterprise lending through the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund.

Gary and I met for lunch a couple of months ago, and we started talking about the institute and both thought it seemed like a really good match to do it again.

Q: What kind of entrepreneur would benefit from taking part?

GH: It’s an applicable approach for anyone in business, actually — real estate offices, developers, service people, accounting firms, manufacturers — anyone who can benefit having a tighter, better connection with your customers and vendors. They can be mom-and-pops, one person and their dog and companies that have a thousand employees, and everything in-between.

Q: There are a lot more pressures on businesses today.

GH: Retailers get much less time to succeed. There’s greater time pressure, greater cost pressure to succeed. All of the costs of being in business — health care, utilities, workers’ comp, liability insurance — are greater than ever.

These are all factors that I would say simply that entrepreneurs who know what they’re up against are, unfortunately, too busy being on a treadmill to do something about.

MS: I also would include non-profit entrepreneurs, who are dealing with the very same issues – how to provide services with the same cost structure Gary’s talking about, medical care, insurance, how to reach markets, cut costs, scale up, the same questions.

Q: What’s causing this kind of pressure?

GH: There are two things going on. The big are getting bigger and advertising is no longer as effective as it once was because consumers, customers are being bombarded by media from every portal. You can get ads on your cell phone or Blackberry.

The answer is, if you have an inherent story to tell, an inherent ability to find and build up on the loyalty to your customer — I don’t care if it’s industrial, consumer or retailer – then you have to find the way to get that message out.

Q: You describe the institute as a “boot camp” for community-minded entrepreneurs. Does that mean it’s for companies that want to emulate Stonyfield?

MS: When we talk about social entrepreneurs, it’s a pretty broad definition.

When you listen to Howard Brodsky, he will tell you he grew up when his parents owned a small pharmacy, and a lot of his parents’ friends owned small pharmacies, and they all went out of business because they couldn’t compete. He was highly motivated by that, and it became his mission, so he developed a really innovative, cooperative business. But you can learn that a number of sectors can benefit from his approach – it doesn’t have to be flooring stores. It can be bicycle stores or tuxedo shops that learn from such a great story.

GH: Every company has a mission. For us, proving tha
t we could profitably support family farmers was our central mission.

But this is not a political orientation at all. We‘re looking for people who want to take advantage of inherent things they’ve got.

My sister and I have worked with developers in this eco-industrial park in Londonderry. There’s obviously enormous competition among industrial parks in southern New Hampshire, and these folks aren’t necessarily progressive, but they understand that doing good for the planet can be a competitive advantage.

Q: So it’s not only for people who are, pardon the expression, do-gooders.

GH: My bias is that the company’s advantage makes the world a cleaner, more peaceful, sustainable place, but it doesn’t have to be that.

This is about finding your competitive advantage. It could be on the revenue side or the cost side — it doesn’t matter where, but everybody’s got it. The mission of this workshop is to discover and capitalize on your competitive advantage.

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