Miyoko Schinner has weighed into the conversation sparked by news that fellow board members have removed her as CEO from Miyoko’s Creamery, the company she founded. In a LinkedIn post post, Schinner explained that “conflict grew around the best path forward for future growth” for the plant-based dairy company, and that she was unwilling to “agree to restrictions that would have made any ongoing role I played at this company for appearances only.”
Her comments came a day after Miyoko’s issued a press release announcing the board’s “unanimous” decision to replace her and seek a CEO with “proven P&L experience who has scaled a larger business.”
An animal rights activist and chef, a founding board member of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), a leading advocate for ethical veganism, and a key player in the debates over the labeling of plant-based foods, Schinner has been a leading voice in the plant-based foods movement in recent years.
“That we find ourselves here is representative of the extent to which my views and approach have not always prevailed, especially in the past two years,” added Schinner, who claimed that “some (though not all) of my fellow directors decided that I would not be actively involved” with the firm going forward.
Schinner also noted she was removed as CEO last June, with negotiations about her continued involvement stalling just before Christmas.
She added: “While I am hopeful that a new CEO will be able to maintain our values while also driving growth, I also must temper that optimism with an honest consideration of and concern about what brought us to this point.”
Board member, investor: We’re looking for someone that has scaled a larger business’
Schinner claimed in her LinkedIn post that the announcement about her departure was deliberately timed to coincide with an event she was hosting, such that she could not immediately respond.
Asked about the timing of the release, Miyoko’s Creamery board member James Joaquin told AFN that vendors and retail partners needed clarity as to who was running the company ahead of the Expo West trade show next month.
“We were waiting to announce it because we were trying to craft a new role for Miyoko in partnership with her,” said Joaquin, co-founder at Obvious Ventures, an investor at Miyoko’s.
“When we reached the conclusion that that was not going to happen, we wanted to announce this change ahead of Expo West.”
He added: “The board, out of good governance, made this decision that we needed new leadership.
“We unanimously removed Miyoko from the CEO chair and worked tirelessly to try to craft a new role, but Miyoko [who is still a board member and a major shareholder in the business] chose not to move into a non-CEO role.”
AFN has contacted several other board members, with some yet to respond and others choosing not to comment at this time. Schinner was not available to provide additional comment today, but said she would talk to us shortly.
The search for a CEO with “proven P&L experience who has scaled a larger business” (led by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles) is progressing well, said Joaquin. Miyoko’s Creamery CFO Jon Blair is serving as interim president.
“I have so much gratitude for what Miyoko has created and built as a founder,” added Joaquin. “I am a huge believer in the company and the brand and the road ahead, but as you scale a business you need new skills and new leaders at different phases of a company and that’s where we’re at now. We’re ready for a new toolbox and a new set of skills.”
Asked about the recent appointment of PBFA founder Michele Simon to the board, he said: “Miyoko Schinner controls multiple board seats at the company and very recently appointed Michele Simon to serve as a director in one of her seats. Michele is replacing a previous Miyoko Schinner appointee.
“The unanimous decision on leadership change occurred prior to Michele joining and included the affirmative votes of two women previously appointed by Miyoko to the board,” added Joaquin.
Michele Simon: Transition could have been handled differently
Speaking to AFN this afternoon, Simon said she understood that the board needed to inform the market about who was running the company, but said it could have been handled differently.
“They could have just put out a release saying there is a transition without this public display of animosity.”
She added: “I joined the board to help ensure the success of this company and that Miyoko is treated with the respect she deserves. It doesn’t benefit the company or Miyoko for this to play out in public.”
‘We’re looking for someone that is not just a hired gun operator’
As for the kind of candidate the board is looking for, Joaquin said: “We’re looking for someone that is not just a hired gun operator but has an authentic connection to our mission around revolutionizing dairy with plants and our commitment to continue to make 100% vegan products: that’s non-negotiable.
“We also want to preserve the wonderful culture at the company Miyoko helped to build, and we want a new leader that can work with the existing team, fit in, and amplify all the good things in that culture.”
While cynics might observe that Schinner has the most authentic connection to this mission (plus, her name is on the box), he told us: “The plant-based mission is bigger than any one person. Miyoko’s is part of this movement of moving away from eating animals to eating plants.
“And that mission is part of the fabric and the culture of the company, and it lives on and it thrives even after Miyoko Schinner moves out of an operating day-to-day role at the company.”
Board seeks ‘someone that has scaled a larger business’
The other key attribute the board is looking for in a candidate is “proven P&L experience, so someone that has really scaled a larger business,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be the category leader of this new category that we helped create, but it’s early days for the plant based dairy set, and we want to extend our lead.
“We want to scale the business and we want a leader that knows how to do that and shows up with a with a toolbox and a Rolodex to really help accelerate growth of the company.”
Miyoko’s still grew in 2022, bucking declining trends in overall plant-based cheese segment
So how is Miyoko’s performing? According to Joaquin, “I’m pleased to see continued growth. There was slower growth in 2022 compared to prior years, but I saw this across my food portfolio, which I attribute to the post COVID slowdown.”
As for growth opportunities for the brand, which makes artisanal cheese wheels, mozzarella, cream cheeses, butter, and spreads, he said: “I’m very bullish on the foodservice opportunity. Miyoko’s liquid, vegan mozzarella was initially developed for the pizza foodservice segment of the United States, which is massive.
“As someone who’s lactose intolerant, I find it very frustrating to go to a pizza restaurant and there’s nothing on the menu for me. We need a vegan option.”
‘There are many more occasions to use Miyoko’s products than just serving them on a cheese board on special occasions’
The other area of growth is expanding usage occasions for Miyoko’s products, which are now available in 20,000+ stores with a 12% increase in doors in mainstream grocery outlets in 2022 vs 2021, he said.
“There are many more occasions to use Miyoko’s products than just serving them on a cheese board on special occasions. We also need more products that meet these occasions, more points of distribution, and more trial in grocery stores.”
While the company made an abortive move into more processed plant-based slices and shreds a couple of years ago, with Schinner telling stakeholders that they had not met her own high standards, this remains an area of opportunity, said Joaquin.
“Those first generation products were discontinued, but I think they were directionally correct as there’s a big opportunity for shreds and slices.”
The plant-based cheese market
The US plant-based cheese retail market declined in 2022, according to SPINS data (see below), but has a customer base potentially broader than plant-based meat in that there are more immediate purchase drivers including food allergies and intolerances, he claimed.
As for the key segments to watch, he said, “There’s the Michael Pollan style four ingredients or fewer, organic artisanal category, which is very much where Miyoko’s is. And then there are the biotech firms using precision fermentation or other cell ag approaches. But I think there will be successful brands in both categories.”
According to a company spokesperson, Miyoko’s is “outpacing the category in unit growth in margarine and plant-based spreads in MULO (multi-outlet data); and outpacing the category in dollars and unit growth in margarine and plant based spreads in the natural channel. Our salted European-style butter is the fastest selling plant-based butter in the natural channel.”
According to Joaquin: “I certainly see a big opportunity in Miyoko’s, which is why I invested with the Obvious Ventures checkbook in the first place. I’m bullish, and I think plant-based dairy is going to continue to grow.”
*According to SPINS data, US retail sales of plant-based cheese declined last year, with Cheddar slumping, but some specialty cheeses performing well.
- 12 weeks to October 30: $sales -4.9%; unit sales -10.7%
- 52 weeks to October 30: $sales -3%; unit sales -5.2%