PORTLAND – Stanley T. Bennett II, chairman and CEO of Oakhurst Dairy and a longtime leader in the industry, died Wednesday at age 64.
Bennett, who was diagnosed last summer with pancreatic cancer, was remembered Thursday as a champion of agricultural initiatives and a generous supporter of nonprofit organizations, especially those that support children or a clean environment.
He took over as president of Oakhurst in 1983, after his father’s retirement, and oversaw a continuing expansion of the business and aggressive investments in clean-energy technology such as solar power.
Bennett also led the Portland-based company through a David-and-Goliath battle with Monsanto Corp., which sued Oakhurst in 2003, demanding that it stop labeling its milk as free of artificial growth hormones. Oakhurst kept the pledge on its labels, and the company’s stand has since spread throughout the dairy industry.
Bennett, who grew up in Portland and lived in Falmouth, graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts and earned a law degree from Boston University. After a brief stint as a legislative aide in Augusta, he went to work full time for the business started in 1921 by his grandfather, the first Stanley T. Bennett.
Most of his six siblings continue to work for Oakhurst Dairy, the largest independent dairy processor in Maine. The business employs about 230 people, distributing milk throughout Maine and New Hampshire and parts of Vermont and Massachusetts.
“It’s a great loss to the industry,” said Cheryl Beyeler, executive director of the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council. “He has been active in so many agricultural initiatives.”
Oakhurst, for example, is using its school milk cartons and offering grants to promote good nutrition and physical activity in schools, she said.
The company also is regarded nationally as an industry leader in reducing fossil fuel use by improving efficiency and switching to clean energy, such as biodiesel fuel for its trucks and solar panels to heat water and make power.
Bennett made a name for Oakhurst when he and the company stood up to Monsanto.
“He wasn’t trepidatious to take on a very large company,” Beyeler said. “A lot of farmers thought by not using (growth hormones), it impeded their use of technology. I think now … across the nation, most of the processors and co-ops have asked their farmers not to use it.”
The conflict revealed Bennett’s understanding of his northern New England market, Beyeler said. “Maine consumers don’t always follow national trends, and I think Stan was acutely aware of that,” she said.
The company’s natural image and its slogan “The Natural Goodness of Maine” have been a key part of its success and growth, said William Bennett, who recently became company president.
“He did a wonderful job expanding our business, a lot through acquisitions” of smaller milk processors, William Bennett said. “But also, he did a marvelous job of marketing our product. He had a real sense for that.”
Although the fight with Monsanto was expensive, Stanley Bennett didn’t waver, his brother said.
“Stanley was very proud of our stand with Monsanto. We thought it was very important to be able to tell our consumers what was not in our milk,” he said.
Stanley Bennett was the company’s unofficial ambassador to the community and was quick to help a worthy cause. Oakhurst contributes 10 percent of its profits to local organizations that support “healthy kids and a healthy environment.”
The long list of Bennett’s favorite organizations included the Friends of Casco Bay. He got to know the bay aboard his motorboat, Lucia II. “He had as much time on that bay as many lobstermen,” William Bennett said.
Another favorite was the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, which made him an honorary life director in October to recognize 20 years of support for the group.
Bennett learned to swim at the Portland clubhouse when he was a boy, and became a longtime board member and a major corporate promoter of the clubs, said Robert Clark, the organization’s chief professional officer.
In 2003, an Oakhurst promotional campaign generated $100,000 for the clubs from milk sales.
Bennett sometimes went to the clubs to help serve meals. “He very much liked kids. He loved his visits,” Clark said.
Bennett’s community involvement included serving on the Falmouth Planning Board.
He recently used his influence to help independent Maine dairy farmers, even though they weren’t affiliated with Oakhurst.
Bill Eldridge, chairman of Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., said he asked for Bennett’s help in 2009 when 10 small organic dairy farmers lost their buyer and were in danger of closing. Bennett offered to help with distribution of their new organic brand, MOOMilk.
Rather than seeing the new brand as a competitor, Bennett wanted to support the industry and saw the independent organic farmers as partners, Eldridge said.
“He put Oakhurst money and himself out there. Whenever we needed something, he was right behind us all the way,” Eldridge said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: