Cheese kings worth US$19 Billion as dairy dynasty grows riches

A machine cuts sections of Roquefort Societe 150years cheese for packaging at the Lebrou-Roquefort plant, part of Groupe Lactalis, in Roquefort, France. (Bloomberg pic)

LONDON: You don’t have to make leather handbags or silk scarves to join the top ranks of France’s ultra-rich.

The Besniers have done it in the most Gallic of ways. They’re the family behind Laval-based Groupe Lactalis, the world’s biggest cheesemaker.

The three siblings who own the closely held company – Emmanuel, Jean-Michel and Marie – are now collectively worth US$18.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Jean-Michel and Marie joined Emmanuel among the world’s 500 richest people this month and now comprise the biggest number of billionaires from one French family in the index.

Their combined wealth increased almost 10% this year after Lactalis reported 2018 revenue of 18.5 billion euros (US$20.8 billion).

That puts them closer to the US$200 billion collective net worth of the luxury goods titans who dominate France’s wealth rankings, such as LVMH’s Bernard Arnault and Kering’s Francois Pinault.

Lactalis doesn’t disclose consolidated financials, but spokeswoman Caroline Hopu provided the latest results in a March 11 email. She declined further comment.

‘Invisible boss’

Chief executive officer Emmanuel Besnier, 48, and his siblings are the third generation of the family to control the business, known for its household President brand of brie.

Labeled Lactalis’s “invisible boss” by France’s media because of his low profile, Emmanuel has become the focus of increasing attention in recent years.

He made a rare public statement last year after more than 35 children across Europe fell ill from contaminated baby food from Lactalis.

The company is tight-fisted with the dairy farmers that produce the raw material for its wealth.

Lactalis paid lower prices on average to its French milk suppliers in the past two years than rivals Danone, Savencia SA and Sodiaal, according to the LTO international milk-price comparison.

The company ended a 2016 conflict with farmers by consenting to a monthly minimum price of 30 euro cents for a litre of milk.

The Besniers join Canada’s Lino Saputo and the U.S.’s Jim Leprino to have dairy-based fortunes.

Like their CEO brother, Jean-Michel, 51, and Marie, 38, shun public appearances. Emmanuel took over the company’s reins at age 29 after his father, Michel, died from a heart attack in 2000.

Since then, he’s overseen a string of acquisitions, including last year’s agreement to buy an infant-formula business for 740 million euros as Lactalis targets China’s baby-food market.

“To the average consumer, nobody knows Lactalis,” said Liz Thorpe, a US-based food consultant and author of books on cheese. “They know more instead about the company’s portfolio of brands,” such as President and its Galbani mozzarella products.

“I’d say that Lactalis dominates the American consciousness when it comes to French and Italian cheese,” she added.