French connection, The

French connection, The


Sorrento Lactalis’ parent company upholds a long tradition of dairy industry expertise that was born in France’s Mayenne region.

While Sorrento Lactalis’ roots are firmly embedded in a small Italian fisherman’s village, the cheesemaker’s family-owned, privately held parent company hails from Laval, France. Established in 1933 by Andre Besnier, the Lactalis Group is largely considered the European Union’s number one dairy company, engaged in almost all segments of the dairy industry, from fluid milk, cheese and yogurt to cream and whey powder.

With annual sales of $5.5 billion, the Lactalis Group’s flagship brand, President, lines dairy cases in over 150 countries worldwide. The company’s more than 80 manufacturing facilities are equally widespread, churning out dairy products from such countries as France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Algeria, Egypt and the United States.

The Lactalis Group’s headquarters remains in Laval to this day, led by Emmanuel Besnier, Andre Besnier’s grandson. Andre’s son, Michel, inherited the company from his father in 1955 and held the reins until his death last year.

“And so the legacy continues,” notes Paul Bensabat, president and chief executive officer of the Lactalis Group’s U.S. operations, including Buffalo, N.Y.’s Sorrento Lactalis as well as Lactalis USA (both part of the holding company, Lactalis American Group). “We are still 100 percent private.”

Before passing away, Michel Besnier commenced another legacy in the educational arena, adds Bensabat, with the establishment of the Lactopole dairy museum on the Laval site where his father built his first dairy plant. “This museum is recognized by the Ministry of Education as a true museum,” says Bensabat. “Students come in and tourists visit it. It is truly an incredible educational tool for dairy.”

The Lactopole stands as just one of the innovations inspired by the Besnier family, however. In the beginning the Lactalis Group was merely a small manufacturer of hand-ladled camembert, but along the way the firm systematically acquired competitors and expanded its dairy product lineup. By the early 1970s, Michel Besnier had invented the first pasteurized camembert and then established the President brand, which is widely known today as the premier brand of European style cheeses.

“Mr. Besnier’s camembert had a good shelf life and he was able with it for the first time to provide the consumer with a consistent product day in and day out,” observes Bensabat. “The President brand is one of the most powerful consumer brands in the dairy business in the world today. It is recognized today in Europe as one of the top 10 consumer brands – not just for dairy products, but for any product. Top of mind recognition is extremely high, and you can credit the Besnier family’s work with that.”

In the late 1970s, the Lactalis Group started exporting cheeses to the United States, a country that today represents the company’s largest market outside of France. By 1980, the Lactalis Group had established a U.S.-based import office to facilitate its business, and within a couple years the company had purchased its first U.S. plant in Belmont, Wis., for the domestic manufacture of brie and camembert.

Production was orchestrated by one of the group’s best French cheesemakers with equipment imported from overseas. “At the beginning it was quite difficult to distribute the product because everyone refused to buy domestic product that was normally supposed to be imported. There was no such thing as making an American brie or camembert,” explains Bensabat.

Nonetheless, the American operation persevered until its European cheese distribution extended throughout the United States, prompting the Lactalis Group to build a new specialty cheese plant in Turlock, Calif., which later began processing edam, gouda and feta cheeses as well – all under the President brand.

Today’s President brand, managed by Lactalis USA, encompasses a wide spectrum of specialty cheeses, including brie, camembert, edam, gouda, feta, asiago and fontina varieties.

“The President brand is one of the leading brands of specialty cheeses in the deli today in America,” says Bensabat. “We are following in the steps of our parent company in terms of leadership regarding the President brand. We continue to promote offensively this very strong name which represents high quality, European style specialty cheeses throughout the world.”

Copyright Stagnito Publishing Oct 2001

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