For Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, two New Hampshire employers – Stonyfield Farm and Southern New Hampshire University -- figure heavily in his message to voters. NHPR’s Jason Moon reports on what Van Ostern’s time at these companies might tell us about how he’d operate as governor.
One way Van Ostern highlights his experience in the private sector is in his TV ads. A recent one opens with Van Ostern lifting boxes, presumably full of yogurt, into a Stonyfield truck.
Van Ostern is then seen riding shotgun in the Stonyfield truck as a voiceover outlines his plans for New Hampshire. He’s pictured speaking to men in jeans and hard hats, and women in pink Planned Parenthood shirts, and all of them are eating out of cups of yogurt. In fact, every single shot in the 30-second ad features Stonyfield in some way.
It’s been three years since Van Ostern actually worked at Stonyfield. But ads like this make it clear he sees his time there as an key item on his resume as he seeks the governor’s office. Here he is telling voters as much at a campaign stop this summer.
“By the time I was 35 years old I was responsible for a hundred-million dollars’ worth of business a year at Stonyfield. And here’s what I learned…”
Van Ostern started at Stonyfield in 2011. At the time, the then-32-year-old was already well into a career in politics. He had had worked on the campaigns of Democrats Jeanne Shaheen, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Annie Kuster.
But in 2007, Van Ostern enrolled in Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, in an apparent move to take a break from politics.
Sydney Finkelstein, one of Van Ostern’s professors at Tuck, says Van Ostern’s political experience influenced his studies.
“He was known as one of the more politically alert students," Finkelstein said. "Someone who wasn’t going to be the classic go to Wall Street, try to make a lot of money, etc. I think he was someone who had a bigger potential contribution in mind.”
With MBA in hand, Van Ostern got his first shot at making that bigger contribution with Londonderry-based Stonyfield Farm in 2011.
“I had a fancy degree from a fancy school and they put me in charge of kinda the smallest possible product line," Van Ostern recalled in a recent interview.
Van Ostern quickly moved up the ladder at Stonyfield. In just a few years, he was promoted to be brand manager for the company’s baby and kids division.
That position entailed running about one third of the company's business, according to Gary Hirshberg, chairman and former CEO of Stonyfield Farm. Hirshberg, a prominent figure in state Democratic politics and a supporter of Van Ostern, says the brand manager position is a demanding job that involves refereeing disagreements between the company’s departments.
“The brand manager was, on the one hand, the external ambassador for the brand," Hirshberg said. "I think the more crucial role was as the internal facilitator of often heated and dynamic discussions, arguments, battles.”
Ed Maltby, with the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, says Van Ostern would have been brokering those internal disagreements at a time when Stonyfield was undergoing something of a transition. Maltby says Stonyfield, with its socially responsible business model, had been kept afloat in previous years by repeated venture capital investments. Then the company was acquired by French dairy giant group Danone in 2004.
“When Dannon came in, they sort of had a requirement that they have growth rates of 15 percent a year and that they meet certain margins and so it would have been quite a challenge," said Maltby.
Stonyfield was able to meet those targets, and today the company still enjoys a large share of the organic yogurt market, despite a growing list of competitors.
As a manager at Stonyfield, Hirshberg says Van Ostern distinguished himself with a methodical, systematic approach to leading.
“He’s not the most flamboyant or charismatic public speaker, but when you have compelling evidence and you have data and you’ve done your homework, and you can organize your argument in a way that brings people together, that’s where you can be effective," Hirshberg said.
The dual role of internal peace-maker and external ambassador followed Van Ostern to a new job at Southern New Hampshire University in 2013.
There, he helped shape a project called College for America, an online degree program tailored toward working adults.
Steve Giglio, director of Corporate Partnerships at College for America, said Van Ostern played a critical role in marketing what was a fairly unusual new type of higher ed program.
“And the other critical role that Colin played was, without having the title, he was the chief operating officer," Giglio said. "He had his hands in all the different aspects of the business as a whole.”
But while Van Ostern’s former colleagues at Stonyfield and College for America praise his work, critics, particularly Republicans, point out that he spent only about five years in the business world before deciding to run for governor. And it’s hard to tie the success of either Stonyfield or College for America directly to Van Ostern’s tenure.
Still, Van Ostern says these roles, paired with his experience on the state's Executive Council, have left him with what he believes is a winning management philosophy.
“I think setting a clear vision and then helping people get the best out of the whole team, helping have a group of people collaborate, is the style that I have found succeeds both at places like Stonyfield and Southern New Hampshire University and in the state of New Hampshire’s government," Van Ostern said.
Now, just days away from a state primary, it will be New Hampshire voters who help decide whether Van Ostern will be applying that philosophy in the private or public sector.