WEBSTERVILLE, Vt. (AP) — Adeline Druart, president of Vermont Creamery, grew up in a small village in eastern France called La Villeneuve. It looks, she said, a lot like Vermont, with a church in the center of the village and old stone houses surrounded by green pastures and small dairy farms.

"In the morning they walk the cows to the pasture, in the evening they walk back," Druart said. "You have to time when you come back from work so you don't get stuck in the herd."

Both of Druart's grandparents were dairy farmers. She attended a national dairy school to learn how to make cheese, then went for a master's degree in biotechnology at the University of Lyon, where she was required to serve an internship.

A friend of Druart's had visited Vermont and told her that's where she should go for her internship. It looked a lot like France, her friend said, and they made real cheese there.

"I said, 'Americans don't make real cheese, they make Cheez Whiz,'" Druart recalls replying.

Nevertheless, she Googled "Vermont," ''fromage," and "creme," and Vermont Creamery popped up. As it turned out, some of the cheese the company was making had French names. A good sign.

Druart didn't speak English, so she asked her English professor to help her write a letter and translate her resume. Receiving her proposal, the founders of Vermont Creamery, Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, told Druart to come on over.

Hooper and Reese had built Vermont Creamery into a company with 23 employees and $5 million in annual revenue after launching the business in 1984 with the first goat dairy in the state.

The two former Agency of Agriculture employees got the idea for the business after Reese found himself in need of goat cheese for a promotional dinner sponsored by the agency. He turned to Hooper, who had spent time in France learning to make cheese.

Hooper made the required goat cheese, and Vermont Creamery was born after other Vermont chefs began asking Hooper and Reese for the cheese they'd had at the dinner.

"They both had $1,200, $2,400 total, to start the business," Druart said. "They retrofitted Hooper's farm, where they had about 60 goats, and started making cheese."

In June 2002, Druart, then 21 years old, arrived at Hooper's farm for her internship.

"The plan was I would live with her family," Druart said. "She didn't know I was not speaking English. I didn't tell them because I wanted this job so bad."

As Hooper began to talk to Druart, she could see the young French woman looked like a "deer in the headlights," Druart said. The next morning, Hooper, who speaks French fluently, looked at Druart and asked, "You don't speak English, do you?"

"I said, 'No I don't madame,'" Druart recalled. "And she said, 'It's OK. You're going to be OK.'"

It was the start of a remarkable relationship that resulted in Allison Hooper and Bob Reese nurturing not only their cheese-making talents, but also the innate business acumen of their young French intern. After completing her master's degree, Druart returned to Vermont Creamery and steadily rose from operations manager to general manager to president of the company in November 2015.

Three years ago, Druart went to Hooper and Reese with a proposal. At that point, Vermont Creamery had grown to a $25 million business with about 75 employees. After praising the company's growth, its employees and its production facility in Websterville, Druart told the founders that Vermont Creamery had reached a "tipping point."

"For us to go to the next level, we're going to need investment,'" Druart said.

The company hired advisors to help find investors. Interest was strong.

"Our brand was known as being one of the best," Druart said. "A great manufacturing site."

A leading candidate for the investment soon emerged: Land O'Lakes Inc., the $14 billion farmer-owned coop based in Arden Hills, Minnesota.

"We quickly realized their vision was in line with ours," Druart said.

Matt Reese said his father and Allison Hooper agreed with that assessment of Land O'Lakes. Reese grew up around the five-gallon milk cans his father had everywhere in the early days of Vermont Creamery, as he built the business with Hooper.

"So we always had those in our house and in our vans," Matt Reese said. "Milk would spill all over the van; our van as a kid smelled like sour goat milk. I didn't ever want to be the family to drive the kids to soccer."

Reese, Vermont Creamery's director of finance, said his father and Hooper felt reassured their company and employees would be in good hands after the partners sold the company to Land O'Lakes and retired in March 2017.

As far as the acquisition goes, so far so good. Two years later, no one has lost his or her job as a result of the buy-out. Today, Vermont Creamery has 121 employees, and is looking for more.

"They want to grow the company and add jobs here in Vermont," Reese said.

Land O'Lakes is pouring money into Vermont Creamery. The company broke ground on an expansion in May that when completed by the end of 2020 will result in a nearly 40 percent increase in the size of the Websterville plant and offices.

"I think that speaks to the commitment of Land O'Lakes to invest in the long-term success of Vermont Creamery," Druart said.

Druart catches herself, overwhelmed momentarily with emotion, when she thinks about her journey from La Villeneuve to Websterville, running a pioneering business that basically introduced America to goat cheese.

"I'm a cheesemaker, trying to be a businesswoman," Druart said. "I got lucky to meet awesome people. You can't do it alone. You need an awesome team that gives you a chance and believes in you."

Online: https://bit.ly/30s7bVv

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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