My husband, Gary Hirshberg, announced last week that he was stepping down as CE-Yo of Stonyfield Yogurt, after 28 years on the job. (He will become the company’s Chairman.) As readers of my Balancing Acts column know, I regularly chronicle both the trials and the joys of running a business from the perspectives of both founders and their families. When Inc.com asked me how Gary’s decision would affect our lives, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk to him about a few issues I’d wanted some clarity on myself. (I’ll be talking more about my own reactions in a later column.)
First of all, for the readers, could you explain why you decided this was the right time to step down as CEO? What will you do now?
Stonyfield’s management team and facilities are in a strong place and our future looks bright. It’s good for the company to have a new leader and for me to make a change. The organic industry is at a crossroads right now, and I want to put my efforts into dealing with our most pressing challenges: addressing both organic supply shortages and lack of public understanding about the true differences between organic and conventional foods.
As for future plans related to business, as chairman of the company, I have every intention of helping Stonyfield grow. Beyond that, there are other businesses I’d like to help. This will be a good exercise in self-discipline: being involved without getting completely sucked in. Until now, the need to run my own business was always a governor on how much time I could give to other companies. I no longer have that excuse. I’m familiar with my inclination to take on new things, so my sentries are at high alert.
How is this all settling in, emotionally?
It’s only been a few days, but so far it’s completely surreal. I think what I’m most excited about is getting to know myself in a new way. You get grooved into a certain track as a CEO. You are making decisions 24/7 and constantly giving people direction. It becomes who you are. Now there’s no one to give direction to. A big Stonyfield crisis came through over email last night. For the first time, the burden won’t fall on my shoulders alone. I don’t have to step into the phone booth and put on the cape.
Talk about all the e-mails you’ve been getting.
It’s been overwhelming. Interestingly, a lot of them use the word “retire” in them. What? I’m not retiring! I understand how it looks that way, but that’s not what I’m doing. To me, the word “retire” means “get tired again.” But a friend of mine had a positive take. “Retire means get a new set of tires,” she wrote me. “I hope they take you where you want to go.”
Let’s talk about us. How do you think leaving your job will affect our lives together?
Since we married, I’ve been on the Stonyfield clock, 24/7. I’m used to keeping silent about things I didn’t want to burden you with. I’ll have to learn to communicate more, and co-pilot more, and hold back from trying to grab the controls. This is like hitting the “refresh” button on our relationship. We’ve been together for 28 years, and you’ve only known me as a CEO. You’re going to have to decide if this is still the guy you want to be married to.
Do you honestly worry about that?
I’ve watched friends go through this transition. Sometimes they spend a lot more time with their spouses, traveling and enjoying shared passions, and sometimes they wind up spending a lot less time together, because their visions don’t overlap. One of my objectives is to have more want-to’s and fewer have-to’s. Hopefully my want-to’s will be compatible with yours.
What do you hope to do for yourself?
I want to take the lessons of Stonyfield’s positive economic business model to a larger audience, with the goal of influencing policy makers and business thinkers. I want to share what I see as win-win solutions to the crisis in our environment and in our health. I’d like to live in France for a while. I also want to travel—New Zealand, Eastern Europe, Patagonia. I’m eager to see where my spirit and inclinations take me. Antarctica’s another dream, though I know you probably won’t want to accompany me there.
That is correct.
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg contributes a regular column for Inc., called “Balancing Acts,” that explores the impact of entrepreneurial business on families. Her new book, For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, will be released March 5.