He's the frequent subject of Meg's Column. Now, the founder of Stonyfield Farm gets to speak up about what he's learned from being his wife's favorite recurring character.
To celebrate the publication of her book For Better or for Work, Meg Cadoux Hirshberg invited her husband to offer his take on the demands of business and family life.
Millions of consumers and entrepreneurs know Gary Hirshberg as the dynamic founder of Stonyfield Farm. Inc. readers know him as the risk-ravening, dream-chasing, often absent husband of Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, who writes Balancing Acts, a regular column about the experience of being married to (or the child, parent, or sibling of) an entrepreneur. Since Meg debuted in our pages, in 2008, with a story about Stonyfield's protracted birth pains, she has chronicled the couple's 28-year relationship with humor and candor. We have read about Gary asking Meg's mother for investments (without Meg's knowledge), missing family events, and sending employees during staff meetings to raid the family's kitchen. We have also read about Gary's devotion to family and mission, and how Gary, together with co-founder Samuel Kaymen, built Stonyfield from a disaster-plagued operation on a hardscrabble farm in New Hampshire into an international brand. (Groupe Danone bought 40 percent of Stonyfield in 2001 and an additional 40 percent in 2003. Gary stayed on as CEO of the company, which in 2011 had sales of $360 million. In January, he relinquished that role. He remains chairman of the company.)
Meg's book For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families hits physical and virtual shelves this month. It is a practical yet intimate guide to building companies and families at the same time. To mark the book's publication, editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan sat down with Gary to see what he has learned from being his wife's favorite recurring character.
In which the frequent subject of this column finally has his say
Meg says she had no idea how difficult it would be building a family and a business at the same time. How did you imagine it was going to work?
I was as naive as Meg. I was delusional. I just assumed it would work—that Meg would fall in love with New Hampshire and country living and our beautiful winters. To be sure, I was trying to put the best possible spin on it for her. But I wasn't thinking about the dark side, any more than I thought about things that could go wrong when I bought a filler or a capper for a machine at work. I was just moving forward.
The question's not what was I thinking when we started, but while it was happening. That's when I started to realize there were limits, especially to time. And that was a problem. Once, this guy called Meg and asked her on a date. I was in the room, so I heard it. Apparently, people saw her alone so much of the time, because I was always working, that they'd got the impression she was single. Meg told the guy, "No, I'm with Gary." But I thought, Wow, this is something I need to pay attention to. We should go out to dinner or something.
For years, your wife was convinced your company would collapse. Did you take her lack of confidence personally?
I took it very personally. There's no question I would have preferred Meg be supportive and cheering for every single decision. Instead, until we stopped discussing the business altogether, she would press hard for explanations. And sometimes, in the end, the best answer I could give her was "because." Like I was a 5-year-old. That was hard. What I was really saying was, "Look, just trust me on this." I don't fault her for not being able to do that. Often, the choice was between something bad and something really terrible.
So if the entrepreneur is going to do what he wants anyway, would you advise the spouse to...
Put up and shut up? No. Over time, I realized that she was worth listening to. Meg has a nose for people—an instinct I've learned from. I remember we got involved with this dairy in Massachusetts, and Meg sensed things were amiss. She didn't trust the situation. Samuel and I didn't do our due diligence, and it turned out their balance sheet was totally leveraged. It was a bad decision that nearly cost us the company. So even though it's painful and can create tension within the couple, the spouse should speak up. But my advice to the spouse is, there's a point where you have to recognize you've said everything you can say. And then you've gotta stop. Because the entrepreneur is going to make that call.
How did you deal with your own doubt and fear? Did you try to conceal them in the interests of protecting your family?
Yes, I tried to conceal them. The tension inside me would be so incredible. Meg couldn't understand how at 10 at night, instead of coming home and being warm and cuddly with her, I was off playing tennis when I had been gone all day and all the previous day and all the previous, previous day. I had to have an outlet for the tension. On many nights, tears would flow. I couldn't show her that. I was very stoic. But I had grown up in an emotionally challenging household, so I had learned to bottle it up. I can't tell you it's the most virtuous attribute. But it's a necessary survival skill.
What were the hardest things you hid from her?
One was how much her mother had invested. Meg didn't know that for about 10 years. There were probably 15 transactions I didn't tell her about. I also don't think I ever really told her about our cash burn. That year, we were losing about $25,000 a week—I know I didn't explain that. Then, when we opened the new facility in Londonderry, there were errors in how it was engineered. By the end of the first week, we were forced to discard 75 percent of our yogurt because it failed to meet quality standards. I definitely didn't tell her about that, because, for starters, it was terrifying. But also, it was embarrassing. It was a reflection on me. I don't think I wanted her to know that her husband was failing again.
As you have made decisions over the years, how have you weighed the competing interests of work and family?
In a tug of war, the business always wins. Of course, you say that the family needs the business to survive financially, so that prioritizing the business is really prioritizing the family. But that's just a made-up debate in your head. The fact is, you're going to deal with emergencies first. And until it stabilizes, the business is the critical-care patient.
How might things have been different if Meg had been more involved with the company? Would you have liked that?
She was involved for a while. That didn't work. One reason our marriage has prospered is because we're so different. I doubt we would have fared as well if we were doing the same things. Anyway, I already had a spouse in the business. I had Samuel. And I don't know that I'd be very good in a triangular relationship. He and I would often close the doors to argue with each other—it was usually me venting at him. He could handle it; he was very thick skinned. I certainly wouldn't have wanted that level of venting going on with Maggie.
As Meg has mined the subject of entrepreneurs and marriage, the two of you have talked a lot about your relationship. What has come out of those conversations that has surprised you?
One thing—and I didn't see this until I was writing the afterword for the book—is that while Meg says she has a very low tolerance for risk, that's not really true. It's just low compared to mine. She had to be somewhat risk tolerant just to marry me. She had plenty of alternatives. I think people who are drawn to entrepreneurs are often more risk tolerant than they realize. They're attracted by the excitement. So there is some complicity.
It also brought home the extent to which Meg has a strong sense of her own limits, which is something I almost totally lack. Like her decision that she didn't want to hear any more about the business, even though she was living there and it was all going on around her. She just said, "I can't take it." So, for five or six years, I didn't tell her anything. And that was good, because it meant home was a place I could escape from work, and I wasn't burdening her with problems.
Looking back, as this process has compelled you to do, what do you wish you had done differently?
Probably there were travels that were unnecessary. And I got involved in a lot of extracurricular stuff that was a distraction and not all that relevant. I just kept taking things on. Because I have no limits. If I hadn't taken them on, Meg and I would have been better off.
I also wish I had been more proactive about finding things we could do together in our day-to-day lives. Most of our togetherness happened away. We leapt from vacation to vacation to vacation. We could have taken dance lessons. Learned a language together. Something.
Stonyfield has a save-the-world kind of mission focused on health and environmentalism. Do you feel as though you, personally, serve a higher purpose? Should entrepreneurs who serve a higher purpose expect more sacrifice from their families?
The answer to the first part is yes. Without that higher purpose, I probably wouldn't have run the company as long as I did. It's why I got up every day even when it was horrible. Insofar as family goes, I don't know that I asked the family to make sacrifices for a higher purpose. Certainly not in a conscious way. Meg was always right there with me on the mission. That brought us together. It was the business that was the problem. And I think it made the kids feel good that Stonyfield wasn't just a cool brand. We were actually doing something important. But I don't think having a higher purpose can be an excuse for justifying sacrifice. Not other people's sacrifices, anyway.
You recently considered running for governor of New Hampshire but decided against it. How much did family concerns factor into that decision?
They were the biggest issue. Meg was always saying, "Ultimately, it's your call. I won't stand in the way." But she was completely against it. The reality is that if I had run and won, I would have been living half the year alone. She wouldn't have been here. We kept joking: "Where's the first lady?" As for me, I'll tell you, lifestyle is everything. With the kids out of the house, we finally have some freedom and the space to design the lives we want next. Being governor would have been a huge encumbrance.
Still, I was really torn up about it. I thought I could win and that I would be a great governor.
So the governorship isn't your next big thing. What is?
Twenty-eight years after starting Stonyfield, I think it's time to pause and take measure. I stepped down as CEO at the end of January, although I will remain chairman, which means I'll be working half time, mostly on external things. I want to take the lessons of Stonyfield's positive business model to a larger audience, with the goal of influencing policymakers and business thinkers. And Meg and I talk about living in France. I've been puttering around with the French language for years, and I think the only way I can really learn it is to live there.
Would you retire there?
Entrepreneur and retirement are contradictory terms. It happens I've got some business enterprises in France, so it works. Stonyfield has an organic yogurt brand there called Les Deux Vaches, and I'm starting a restaurant in Paris with that name. It will be an organic, healthy quick-serve place, like Stonyfield Café. We're designing it now and hope to open this spring. But I'm not running it, which makes a big difference.
Which Balancing Acts columns have been your favorites? Which didn't you like so much?
My favorite, hands down, is the one about how, at some point, the spouse has to answer the question, Are you in or out? Are you committed to this enterprise—and by extension to this entrepreneur—no matter how miserable it gets? All entrepreneurs should ask their spouses that question at least once a year, maybe every quarter. "How are you doing now? You in? You out? You heading in or heading out?" If the spouse is out, she may be too embarrassed to say so. But it's legitimate to feel that way, and the entrepreneur should be aware of it. I think our marriage would have had an easier time if I had understood that.
I don't recall any columns I didn't like. I know that's the nice spousal thing to say. The one where she talked about me playing tennis instead of spending time with her made me a little uncomfortable.
If you were going to assemble a kit for entrepreneurs with growing companies and families, what would be in it?
Exercise clothes and a stretch band. An insulated, soundproof black bag into which the cell phone can be dropped one day per week. A laptop with Skype and speed-dial numbers for the spouse and kids. The account number for Organic Bouquet, which is like 1-800-Flowers but for organic flowers. An Amex miles account to be used for vacation and getaway travel. A mirror for the entrepreneur to look into each time he or she faces a crucial decision. And Meg's book.
Go back to the mirror thing. Do you do that?
I learned this years ago. There was a very bad period when I was struggling over what to do with a couple of managers, and I found myself looking in the mirror, having a conversation with myself. I do it every time I have to make a crucial decision, like the governor issue. Just standing there alone, looking myself in the eye. It grounds me.
What kinds of questions do you ask yourself?
Are you in, or are you out?
Contributing editor MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG is the author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.