By any measure, Sharon and Bruce VandenBerg have been hugely successful. So it’s a little surprising to hear Bruce list off a series of things he says they either weren’t suited to or not very good at.
Not really cut out for retailing, even though they went into the goat cheese business to start a store on their farm.
Not very good at marketing, even though Bruce had made sales his career before the goat cheese enterprise “got out of hand.”
Not really suited for managing a business, even though they made Mariposa Dairy (mariposadairy.ca) one of the great success stories of Canadian agriculture.
That story starts with the couple’s purchase of a 100-acre farm near Oakwood, about 50 kilometres west of Peterborough, Ont., shortly after they married in 1985. Goat cheese seemed to be a natural fit as the farm’s previous owner had a small goat operation, and Sharon, a dietician, wanted something to generate an income to allow her to stay at home when their children were small.
“This was going to be Sharon’s thing,” says Bruce VandenBerg, who was then a sales rep for a farm chemical and seed retailer. “We bought 25 goats with the idea we’d maybe get to 100.”
The couple learned to make cheese and opened a small store in 1989. As word got around, old customers and new ones started showing up. The couple was thrilled at first, and were always willing to answer questions and give inquisitive customers a farm tour. But it eventually got to be too much.
“We were trying to keep Sundays as a family day,” says VandenBerg, a father of four. “But some people didn’t give a toot. Six o’clock in the morning or 10 o’clock at night, we’d have people showing up. If we had lived off the farm or if the store was off the farm or if we had had staff, it would have been great.
“But I had a job off the farm, we were milking goats and making cheese, and it was just all encompassing. We could never get away. That’s when we decided to head to the city and see if we could find another way to sell our cheese.”
As with retailing, the VandenBergs weren’t bad at marketing and distribution, but would later decide it didn’t play to their strengths, either. They got their soft and hard cheeses into Toronto’s Ontario Natural Food Co-op and soon added other retailers – generating enough sales that Bruce was able to quit his job in 1993. But “it’s very, very hard to go from store to store and sell a few pieces of cheese – we needed someone who could move volume,” he says.
So while on the surface, things seemed to be going well, the future of the business was balanced on a knife’s edge – and the VandenBergs recognized that. They realized that in order to get a distributor, they needed scale, so the couple decided to hire staff and increase production. Their plan worked and in 1996, they not only hooked up with Finica Food Specialties, but also struck a deal with the Toronto company to jointly create the Celebrity International Goat Cheese brand.
The brand proved popular and sales began to take off. However, once again, the VandenBergs demonstrated an ability to stand back and look at their business – and themselves – with a critical eye.
And once again, they decided changes were needed to push Mariposa to the next level.
“We had good staff and a good product, but we didn’t have systems in place and as a result we were having quality issues,” VandenBerg says. “We realized we had to grow the business so we could afford to hire someone to run the cheese plant. Someone with the expertise that we didn’t have.”
In the fall of 2000, they hired a cheese plant manager and, a year later, a herd manager.
So with herd management, cheese production, distribution, and retailing all being done by others, what was left for the VandenBergs?
As it turns out, plenty.
“By bringing in people to deal with the day-to-day operations, we were able to stand back and focus on tomorrow,” says VandenBerg.
That may sound a bit vague, but it’s not. The couple was, and still are, heavily involved in the dairy and farm, but having managers means they can get away. VandenBerg recalls vividly a particular day in the late 1990s when he was taking the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, a development program for people in Ontario’s agriculture and food industry.
“I can remember standing in this greenhouse near Niagara Falls and the owner saying there were 65 million people within a day’s drive. I went home, and Sharon and I talked about this. We knew we had a good product and looking at all this potential, that was when we decided it was either get bigger or get out.”
The decision made that day resulted in an aggressive growth strategy that allowed them to seize another life-changing opportunity that came their way.
“One day in the fall of 2003, we got a call: Costco had seen some of our products, and wanted to sell them. Could we handle the business? I was thinking maybe we could add trailers or something at the farm, but when I put the question to Sharon, she said, ‘Why not rent space in town and do our packaging there?’
“So the next morning, we went to town (nearby Lindsay, Ont.), rented a 5,000-square-foot space and called back and said, ‘Tell Costco we’re ready.’ Since then, our business has increased 20 times.”
Drill down into the reasons for that 20-fold growth and strategic decisions made by Sharon and Bruce loom large: The development of cranberry goat cheese (a huge hit) and other flavours. New packaging such as resealable tubs and goat cheese slices. Development of a sophisticated record-keeping system to track things such as colostrum feeding, vaccinations, and treatments that is tied in with distribution records. (The couple got the idea at a conference while listening to a panel discussion of large American dairy producers. “They were spitting out all these numbers on key performance indicators. … So when Sharon and I went home, we said to our herd manager, ‘This is something we have to have.’”)
The list goes on: HACCP and ISO certification to keep the dairy on the cutting edge of food-safety practices. Hiring a controller to prepare for the next stage of growth and an HR manager as the number of employees (now more than 60 people) grew.
“We want to focus on the things we’re really good at,” says VandenBerg. “And I would say for both Sharon and myself, that’s thinking outside the box, finding opportunities, and being able to pull the trigger when the trigger needed to be pulled.”
Looking back, VandenBerg says he can’t imagine himself being a small local retailer or selling to small specialty stores now that goat cheese – thanks to companies such as theirs – has become a mainstream product widely available in all the national chains.
“If we had said no to some of the opportunities that came our way, I think we’d probably be out of business now,” he says. “So I would say deciding what you’re best at has been critical for us.”