The time has come to disrupt the disruptors

Opinion: Dean bankruptcy offers opportunity we should earnestly pursue

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019

If ever there was a time for state governments to sit down with their dairy farmers and agriculture infrastructure for a meeting of the minds… it is now.

The future is very much at stake with Dean Foods – the nation’s largest milk bottler – in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sale proceedings, as the industry is largely signaling the buyer should be DFA.

But not so fast.

This could be an opportunity to look at the strength of Dean’s holdings and consider a different path forward, one that returns some of the regional branding power to farmers and consumers in the regions served by Dean’s 60 milk processing plants.

Dean Foods accounts for one-third of the milk bottled in the U.S., and the roots of its holdings go back to family operations with brands that were once – and some still are – household names.

In focus groups and shopper surveys, consumers demonstrate they understand what it means to buy local. They understand that buying local – especially fresh staples like milk – means keeping their dollars working in their communities. Consumers also say they want to help local farms. And they want to see clear labeling to know where their milk comes from.

Meanwhile, surveys show the gallon and half-gallon jug are still the most popular packaging among real milk buyers. Even though the category as a whole is declining, it is still a huge category and one that has not been tended or nurtured or cared for in more than a decade. In fact, the category has seen the deck stacked against it by government rules and government speech.

Taste is also important to consumers, as is nutrition. Where fluid milk is concerned, these two areas have also been lacking because checkoff-funded promotion became government speech that pushed fat-free and low-fat milk to the point where consumers have no idea what real milk tastes like – until they switch to whole milk, and they are.

Folks, this is an opportunity to chart a new path for fresh fluid milk, to breathe some life into it. We see it in whole milk sales that are rising. Just think what could be accomplished if significant resources were devoted to truly revitalizing milk.

As the dairy industry streamlines behind innovation and checkoff-funded partnerships to disrupt the dairy case — to be more like the plant-based non-dairy disruptors — there is still a majority of consumers choosing real milk, and more of them are choosing real whole milk as whole milk today is the top seller in the category, and whole flavored milk is growing by double-digits.

Can we disrupt all the disruption with a disruptive back-to-the-future original? I think so. But now is the time to hit it hard. A few years from now will be too late.

Dean Foods has the network and the facilities and the history a savvy consortium of buyers could tap into for going back to local or regional emphasis with brands. The DairyPure national branding experiment started out strong, but in the past few years has been squeezed-out by large retailers – and notably Walmart — pushing their own store brands with loss-leading strategies while hoisting the price of Dean DairyPure much higher.

And that’s part of the problem. Stores think it’s okay to loss-lead with milk, but they are not willing to eat that loss themselves. We need them at the regional dairy future table as well.

In the bankruptcy proceedings at hand, some of Dean Foods’ unsecured bondholders are protesting a rapid sale of assets to DFA in what they say equates to a “fire sale” that doesn’t maximize value. Did Dean receive a proposal from them too before filing bankruptcy? Sources indicate bondholders offered restructuring terms before the bankruptcy filing that would have changed the current picture for Dean Foods.

Will these bondholders that are opposing sale to DFA make an offer now? Can Dean Foods’ assets be sold piece by piece to be broken up more regionally? These questions don’t have clear answers at this time.

What is clear is that payments for milk by Dean to DFA are being delayed five business days as bondholders want to be sure they are truly ‘critical vendor’ payments and that there are no shenanigans between the would-be buyer and seller.

What is also clear is that Dean and DFA have a history, and that history includes the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.

DFA was there every step of the way as mergers and acquisitions led Dean Foods on its path to become the nation’s largest milk bottler. DFA is Dean’s largest supplier of milk, and DFA leaders are on record stating that Dean Foods is the largest buyer of DFA milk.

If DFA purchases “substantially all” of Dean’s assets, we know more rapid consolidation of the fluid milk market will occur. DFA’s leaders — as well as the leaders of all the prominent organizations in the dairy industry, including the dairy checkoff — have been clear if we’re paying attention. The future they see is in moving away from investing in fresh fluid milk and moving toward ultrafiltration and aseptic packaging and blending and innovating for beverages that can be supplied to anywhere from anywhere without transporting milk’s water-volume by tanker.

Those are more of the ingredients for a monopolization of milk that may not even be considered by the Department of Justice. Without another offer or series of regional offers on the table, DFA would stand as the only option — other than complete failure of the firm under bankruptcy. This, alone, could put the sale to DFA on the fast track as sources talk about bankruptcy clauses that allow purchases to occur — without DOJ approval — when failure is the only other option.

So while consumers are consciously being pursued by the industry and dairy checkoff to move them away from their habit of reaching for that jug of milk and toward new beverages that contain milk — or are innovated new varieties of milk, or are blended and diluted with plant-based alternatives — what happens to the dairy producers in communities whose relevance is tied closely with retaining fresh fluid milk as a nurtured market and being a producer of a ‘local’ and fresh product? These producers are also forced to pay into the dairy checkoff that is developing these alternatives, not promoting or educating about fresh whole milk, and in effect funding their own demise.

Who will tend this store, nurture these customers, satisfy consumer desires to buy-local and ‘help farmers’ and their new-found eagerness to learn more about real fresh whole milk nutrition?

If states and regions don’t work to keep fresh milk facilities in their midst, the global message on ‘sustainability’, ‘carbon footprint’, ‘flexitarian diets,’ and ‘planetary boundaries’ will overtake the public consciousness, and the choices disrupting and diluting the dairy case will overtake fresh fluid milk.

In business today, that’s all we hear: Innovate and disrupt. Maybe it’s time to disrupt the disruptors, to put together a fresh fluid milk branding and packaging campaign that makes milk new again.

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DEAN BANKRUPTCY: Court allows critical vendor payments; DFA's Smith says 'We are logical owner'

The level of transparency in the Dean Foods Chapter 11 bankruptcy is unprecedented.  Included in the Chapter 11 proceedings are Dean’s 60 dairy plants and numerous name brands, including: national brands DairyPure and TruMoo; along with regionally branded milks, as well as Friendly’s Ice Cream and other cream products. This graphic in the Dean Foods’ declaration to the bankruptcy court shows the implications for consumers, farmers, businesses throughout the nation, reinforcing the importance of Dean Foods continuing operations during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and court-supervised sale of assets.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – When a dairy firm files bankruptcy, the first concern is whether farmers will be paid for milk already shipped. That first hurdle was passed as independent shippers to Dean Foods plants in at least three states report receiving payment in full for October milk, though the settlement checks due Nov. 15 were deposited two to three days late, in many cases.

In Pennsylvania, because of its unique Milk Marketing Board that implements and oversees the state’s Milk Marketing Law, PMMB indicates they are following up to be sure payments are made every two weeks instead of waiting for normal periodic auditing. Pennsylvania’s mandatory over-order premium on fluid milk produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania is part of the minimum price bottlers must pay, and there have been no actions by the board to adjust this in any way.

Other states’ producers also report receiving payments in full.

In fact, Dean Foods’ spokesperson Anne Divjak reported to Farmshine last week that it is “business as usual” for Dean Foods to keep the milk flowing from farms to schools and supermarkets during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization and sale. The first regulated payments for milk after filing bankruptcy encountered just a small delay as banks needed to be aware of honoring the payments after the bankruptcy court decision last Wednesday afternoon allowed “critical vendor” to be paid.

Multiple sources indicate that Dean focused on getting payments to independents first, then small cooperatives, then DFA. There is no confirmation on whether DFA’s milk shipments were paid in full or what portion of the $172.9 million attributed to DFA as a creditor in the bankruptcy filing represent milk shipments.

Orders signed by Judge David Jones of the Southern District of Texas bankruptcy court where Dean’s petition was filed, are what allowed Dean Foods to pay “critical vendors” for pre-petition purchases and to continue its operations by accessing cash on hand as well as having access to up to $475 million of the new $850 million in debtor-in-possession financing to keep the ship sailing for nine months as reorganization and sale are sorted out.

Included in the Chapter 11 proceedings are Dean’s 60 dairy plants and numerous name brands, including: national brands DairyPure and TruMoo; along with regionally branded names for example Swiss Premium and Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania; Garelick in New York and New England; Mayfield and Purity in the Southeast; as well as the Land O’Lakes milk brand in the Central Plains, where Dean licenses the Land O’Lakes logo and name and the cooperative supplies those plants. It also includes Friendly’s Ice Cream and other cream products produced by Dean Foods.

As the nation’s largest milk bottler, Dean Foods accounts for roughly one-third of the U.S. fluid milk market but saw volume losses from various fronts in the past two years and stock shares had fallen below $1.00 with bonds also decreasing in value.

Overall fluid milk consumption is down. Private label store brands are a larger share of the down-trending market compared with brands. Walmart’s new plant in Fort Wayne last year affected their contracts to bottle Great Value and also changed the geography and position of Dean brands in several important Southeast and Mideast markets. 

Dean also suffered other contract losses last year, and as Walmart bottled its own store label brand in several states and worked with Midwestern cooperatives to accomplish and supplement that start up, Dean saw its DairyPure and TruMoo brands replaced by Prairie Farms in many of those stores, and other Walmart stores as well.

Divjak did confirm that Dean’s majority interest in Good Karma, a non-dairy alternative beverage made from flaxseed, is separate from their dairy holdings in the bankruptcy proceedings. Dean purchased the Good Karma majority share a year ago for $15 million.

Interestingly, on Tuesday, November 12, the day that Dean Foods announced its bankruptcy petition, DFA was holding its Northeast Dairy Leadership meeting in Syracuse. Part of Dean’s announcement indicated that the company is in “advanced” talks with DFA about purchase of “substantially all assets.”

Chicago-based food science writer Donna Berry, with ties to DMI, was in Syracuse that day as a guest speaker on dairy protein and how it can be used in innovative foods and beverages to make plant-based options better. According to her Berry on Dairy blog story two days later, entitled “Dairy protein completes plant-based foods,” the mood in Syracuse was “upbeat.”

“Let’s face it, too often dairy marketers take the conservative road when it comes to promoting their products. Dairy Pure was the best Dean Foods could do for fluid milk, and it was not enough, as we see in its bankruptcy filing this week.

Berry went on in her blog post to quote DFA CEO Rick Smith before “a room packed with about 500 Northeast members of DFA and suppliers of services to DFA” at Tuesday’s Syracuse meeting.

The news of Dean Foods’ bankruptcy filing had just broken that morning, and Smith was already stating that, “Everybody’s been telling me for years that we are the logical owner of Dean’s. And I’ve already gotten phone calls about people who want to partner with us. We will be interested in some assets, undoubtedly. And not interested in some, undoubtedly. Some (assets) should be closed. Some will require partners.”

The week before, DFA chairman Randy Mooney’s comments at the NMPF / DMI meeting in New Orleans were loaded with concern about dairy farmers going out of business and loss of rural towns and infrastructure and that NMPF’s priorities were trade and immigration.

But something else Mooney said at that convention the week before Dean’s bankruptcy filing was foreshadowing. He talked about looking at a map and seeing “milk plants on top of milk plants” and how the industry needs to “collectively consolidate” toward plants “capable of making the new and innovative products consumers want.”

Dairy checkoff has made it clear that the emphasis of the future is on innovative new beverages and other products. While we are told that consumers are ditching the gallon jug (although it is still the largest sector of sales in 94% of households) and we are told consumers are looking for these new products; at the same time, we are also told that it is dairy checkoff’s innovation strategy to work with industry partners to “move consumers away from the habit of reaching for the jug and toward looking for these new and innovative products” that checkoff dollars are launching.

Meanwhile, Mooney’s comments about consolidating plants gives us a window into how DFA might treat those Dean assets if the “advanced talks” with Dean about purchasing them come to fruition. DFA will be a prime mover in the further consolidation of fluid milk assets markets if history is a guide.

Other industry analysts are also indicating that potential sale of “substantially all” Dean assets to DFA would likely consolidate these regional fluid milk bottling plants and create major shifts in how fluid milk is supplied to consumers in the future.

Dairy checkoff weighed in just hours after Dean’s bankruptcy announcement, Scott Wallin, vice president of industry media relations and issues management for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), sent a media statement that, “Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is in discussions to purchase the assets,” and went on to point out that, “In a decade shaped by a constantly changing marketplace, U.S. dairy has and will continue to successfully navigate the current economic environment… well positioned to expand its growth through innovation to meet the changing tastes and needs of today’s consumers.”

Others make the point that the Dean bankruptcy signals a milk information problem, not a milk demand problem. Noted agriculture radio personality Trent Loos stated in a broadcast drawing on his history with dairy farmers over the past 20 years, stating: “progressive producers were on the cutting edge of consumer education,” but that “their associations and most of the processors” have pushed in the opposite direction, insisting that consumers want low-fat and skim milk and skim water. He talked about how this is affecting the health of our children and teenagers not consuming enough milk, especially whole milk.

“Now that the producers are filing bankruptcy, the milk processors are filing bankruptcy too. Where does the milk industry go from here? The consumer’s not always right when they don’t have all of the information,” Loos said.

Meanwhile, in the “first-day” hearing on the Dean Foods Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Houston, Texas last Wednesday, at least one attorney — representing one-third of Dean’s bondholders — equated the filing and potential sale to DFA as a “fire-sale” of the company’s assets to DFA and they opposed this move.

Whether other serious buyers emerge – or strategies to regionalize sales of assets – remains to be seen.

For now, farms who ship milk to Dean Foods as independents or cooperatives are operating under levels of transparency and “business as usual” that were not seen in dairy bankruptcies of the past. Stay tuned.

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