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Gay Lea Foods CEO butters up Thornloe Cheese

Southern Ontario farmers co-operative makes entry into Northern Ontario

Don’t expect much in the way of major changes at Thornloe Cheese, according to its new owner.

Michael Barrett, CEO of Gay Lea Foods, said their immediate plans are to ease into the environment as the Mississauga-based, farmer-owned cooperative makes its first formal entry into Northern Ontario.

Gay Lea acquired the award-winning 30-employee Temiskaming cheesemaker from Gencor last December.

“We’re not so arrogant to believe that we understand the northern market in its entirety,” said Barrett.

“Right now our priorities are to understand the business and be able to understand exactly where it fits into the product context of our business itself. You won’t likely see a great deal of change in the next year or so.”

The popular cheese factory and store is located 17 kilometres north of New Liskeard, near the village of Thornloe.

And don’t expect to see the landmark Highway 11 sign being replaced anytime soon.

“Thornloe is an excellent brand,” assured Barrett. “It’s got a lot of history in the community and history will reign and that’s important.”

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The northeastern Ontario producer of cheese and cheese curds will celebrate its 80th anniversary in July.

Founded by René Laframboise in the village of Thornloe in 1940, the factory went through a succession of owners, relocation and expansion at its current Highway 11 digs under the Jubinville family, Balderson Cheese, Ault Foods, and Parmalat.

When Montréal-based Parmalat announced it was closing the cheese plant, Gencor, a southwestern Ontario cattle genetics company, purchased the operation in 2007, and later merged with Eastern Breeders of Kemptville to form EastGen.

But it wasn’t a long-term solution.

Barrett acknowledged Gay Lea had been eyeballing Thornloe for quite some time.

“I’d say we danced a couple of times but never got on the dance card permanently.”

The timing was finally right in early 2019 to begin serious discussions.

As evidenced by Gay Lea’s other acquisitions, Barrett said his ownership group has an obvious bias toward farmer-owned organizations.

“It’s important that dairy farmers are participants from farm to fork and this gives them that continuous opportunity.”

Gay Lea Foods has members on more than 1,400 dairy farms in Ontario and Manitoba, more than 4,320 producer and investor shareholders.

The business has made recent acquisitions in Western Canada but is primarily Ontario-based, with 10 manufacturing plants in the southern part of the province.

Barrett said Gay Lea’s intentions aren’t to scoop up the business and relocate it south but enhance what has been painstakingly built up over the years, customer by customer.

The Gay Lea business philosophy is focused on making investments in small communities that support establishing a strong rural economic base.

“The easy thing is to relocate everything to southern Ontario and that has never been our strategy.”

Thornloe has been a frequent award-winner at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, in being celebrated for its traditional and artisanal cheeses, and its introduction of the first butter and cheeses made with milk sourced from Dairy Farmers of Ontario's Verified Grass Fed program.

That kind of recognition wasn’t lost on Gay Lea.

“They’ve done an excellent job in developing a number of producers in that region that produce grass-fed milk and the grass-fed butter,” said Barrett.

“Grass-fed was an area that we didn’t play in, and that certainly complements itself to what we see ourselves as the butter market leader.”

What Gay Lea brings to the table, he explained, is an ability to fund innovation, and bring wider market contacts and a broader customer reach, which should give Thornloe greater exposure in southern Ontario.

At the same time, Thornloe provides an entry point for Gay Lea products to enter the North.

Barrett finds there are “a lot of synergies to be had” in the product mix Gay Lea makes – cottage cheese and sour cream – that are not competitive with Thornloe.

“So we’re not taking production away from that facility.”

Most of the farmers that participate in Thornloe’s grass-fed products are also Gay Lea members.

Over the years, Barrett said, Thornloe’s customer base has been built by pounding the pavement.

“The difference is those relationships have been built person to person, where our relationships are built head office to head office.

“We have a very strong food service business that we think we can complement what Thornloe has developed.”