Three Generations of the Benedetti Family Have Made Clover Sonoma an Iconic Dairy
The December 2018 GMM featured a conversation with Dan and Marcus Benedetti.
With a 102-year legacy of providing fresh dairy products to residents of Sonoma County, the region and beyond through three generations of the Benedetti family, continuity of ownership and operations is ongoing as leadership of the company has passed from founder Gene – the center of gravity for the family — to son Dan, and his son Marcus.
The story of Clover Stornetta Farms and the Clover Sonoma brand, along with the family’s vision, accomplishments and highly successful billboard “pun” marketing campaign, was the topic of the December 5, 2018 Sonoma County Alliance general membership meeting. Rather than deliver a presentation about Clover, Dan and Marcus engaged in an informal dialogue about their business followed by a question and answer session with members of the Alliance.
Clover has become known for a series of “firsts.” It became the first American humane certified dairy and is also a certified B (benefit) corporation meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose — with a vision of the business as a force for good. Clover was also the first company to be certified as a B Corp in the year they adopted this model that also involves third-party verifications.
“For us, a guaranteed business succession plan from father to son was desirable, but not inevitable. Meritocracy is what counts based on ability, talent and performance,” said Dan. “Marcus had a long tenure as a student. His mom and I said we would support him through college if he graduated in four years – it took him longer than that, which compelled him to think seriously about applying himself and paying his own way… but he did it.”
Marcus’ initial college report card showed a couple of D grades, and so did the second. Dan told him it was time to determine what he wanted to do with his life, and the vaccination took. College took six years, not four, followed by graduate school where he earned a masters degree.
“These were my hardest times. It was a period of tough love that wasn’t fun at all, but I learned the lesson,” said Marcus. “This was a big transition to make. Dad and I remain close in a timeless and seamless way. Both my father and grandfather are exceptional human beings.
“My dad taught me what a smile can do. He said ‘be nice to people’ and that ‘family counts’, factors that he demonstrated daily in our Italian family culture where he is known for helping others. There is a bond here that for some is not easily to understand but one that is enduring and meaningful.”
Dan handed the keys to the company over to Marcus and does not second-guessed him or hover over his son. They collaborate often and the father remains available to offer advice when needed.
“We talk every day, and I have an office next door to the CEO,” said Dan, “but he doesn’t pay me! I continue to stay involved in the community as a Doyle trustee, as well as with Santa Rosa Junior College and Exchange Bank. There are many folks in this community, as well as in this room today, who made a big difference in my life.”
Roots of the family business go back to 1975 when a big fire destroyed the Petaluma Cooperative Creamery’s processing and bottling operations. Gene Benedetti’s decision to start from scratch was the catalyst for founding Clover Stornetta Farms, Inc. The firm literally rose from those ashes when the Benedetti family purchased the wholesale distribution business from Cal Coop and the Stornetta dairy in Sonoma in August of 1977.
Two years earlier, in 1975, milk consumption had started to decline, but the market for ice cream was growing. The Benedetti’s had to be nibble in adapting to these changes. In those days, milk had a shelf life of 18 days. With new technology and advanced processing techniques, this time frame can be increased to as long as 90 days.
The company also began to implement a plan focusing on being “greener” and sustainable as a business and stewards of the land. Today Clover’s management is seriously considering establishing a unique plant based on the need to develop new product alternatives. The family believes you can spend resources to support a traditional dairy business or explore options, such as potential plant-based product solutions for the future.
Owners realized that urban consumers needed to reconnect with farms, the source of their food supplies, not only in the North Bay, but nationwide. New markets for Clover Brand products have emerged as far away as Arkansas, Minnesota, Texas and in Rocky Mountain states, extending the company’s brand and image thousands of miles from home base.
“People have come to realize that all good things emanate from Sonoma County,” said Marcus. “We live in an incredible county. At an economic forum a week ago the topic of taking a closer look at local agriculture was discussed. There is a remarkable sense of place surrounding Sonoma County’s agrarian culture and its bucolic food venues.”
“Clo the Cow” first appeared as the official mascot for the Clover Brand in 1969 and has maintained a strong presence and identity on Northern California billboards ever since with her broad smile and witty puns – collections of these billboard photos have been compiled in a number of books since the late 1960s.
Lee Levinger, founder of Sonoma County’s first ad agency, approached Gene with an idea for a new, innovative billboard campaign featuring a cartoon cow with big teeth, and what appeared to some as cracked-out eyes, along with puns to go with each new sign – such as “Support Your Local Cow, Outstanding in Her Field” and “Tip Clo Through Your Two Lips” and “Clo Ahead, Milk My Day” to mention a few classic phrases.
“This funny but illustrative ad campaign showed the world who we are without taking ourselves too seriously,” Gene added.
The campaign attracted both nationwide and global attention with articles in newspapers, including Herb Caen’s column in the SF Chronicle, and in the former Mademoiselle Magazine as well as coverage by the CBC with pickup in France. According to Gene, the world went wild, and Clo’s role as a marketing icon was assured.
Dan Benedetti attended the school of hard knocks, and went to work right after starting college. He attended SRJC, where he also coached football in 1946 after the war, but never graduated from Sonoma State University. He learned life lessons on the streets, and never gave up.
In 1986, Gene asked his son Dan to follow him as president. In 1991 Clover Stornetta opened a new, modern milk processing facility in Petaluma.
“During the early days of our business, Gene tried to get bank loans, but had to take a second mortgage on our home to fund acquisition and operational activities. We were undercapitalized, but win or lose our family stayed the course. We bought and sold our business twice internally – we’re not a capital-based enterprise. Over the years we got out of debt, and today we are a $230 million/year company with a range of relationships with 32 farms (half organic and half commercial) producing 150,000 gallons of milk per day. Twenty-five percent of production stays as milk and the rest becomes yogurt,” according to Marcus.
“We only have 400 cows, compared to 4,000 to 5,000 at farms in the central valley, but we have higher production costs here in the North Bay due in part to the cost of shipping corn and alfalfa feed here for our herd.”
The company has a very loyal workforce and some have worked a lifetime for Clover. The average longevity of employees is 16 years.
“We are a family, everyone is called ‘Buck’ here, and try to get out of the office and greet everyone from those driving trucks to others working in the processing plant. This is harder to do now that we have three facilities. The goal is to treat every person as you would like to be treated. Our workers feel like they have a seat at the table and believe they are part of something bigger. We practice decentralized decision-making,” said Marcus.
The future vision still emphasizes family ownership. “Our mission is to keep this family business going, meaning the family has to stay together,” said Dan. “But having said that, meritocracy is important. I don’t think there will ever be another Clover president or CEO who does not have a college degree.”
Marcus agrees. “Our business anchors the family. I’m taking this seriously with a son as a freshman in college and my youngest still in school. I have 20 or more years to devote to the business full time and there are creative ways to ensure continuity – sink or swim.”
He said having long talks with his dad were – and still are — very important. “We agreed that it was vital to keep going and not sell out. When a company sells, part of the culture of the community is also sold. When the goose that laid the golden egg is no longer in business, what it did for the local area is over. Today farming is beginning to change. Some farms have and make money, some don’t. We want to do our part in helping to preserve the family farm and see it flourish,” said Marcus.