The Dannon Co. Inc. recently passed General Mills’ Yoplait brands to become the largest manufacturer of yogurt in the United States. The company is a subsidiary of Paris-based Groupe Danone S.A. and produces 6 million cups of yogurt a day under popular brands such as Activia, Light & Fit and Fruit on the Bottom. Groupe Danone also owns the Stonyfield Farms and Brown Cow brands, which operate largely independently from The Dannon Co.
Although per capita U.S. yogurt consumption remains a fraction of that in Europe, the market is growing ­rapidly. U.S. yogurt sales increased by nearly 7 percent to $7.3 billion last year and are projected to hit $9.3 billion by 2017, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. Dannon controlled about 28 percent of the market through March 31, according to research firm SymphonyIRI.
Fuelling the boom is a craze for Greek yogurt, sales of which increased by more than 50 percent to $1.6 billion last year. Dannon’s Greek brand Oikos is now helping the company ride its wave of popularity.
Headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., Dannon employs more than 1,300 people in the United States. Its largest factory in Minster, Ohio, produces 230,000 cups of yogurt per hour. It also operates factories in Fort Worth, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and West Jordan, Utah.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Nancy Dowling, Dannon’s vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, oversees a team of six lawyers as well as two compliance managers and a paralegal. She reports to Wendela Van Uchelen, Danone’s vice president for legal affairs for the Americas, also in White Plains.
Dowling supervises all legal issues for Dannon in the United States and occasionally works with lawyers from Groupe Danone’s headquarters and other subsidiaries. Most recently, she helped the parent company’s Amsterdam, Netherlands-based baby food division in its purchase this year of New York-based organic baby food maker Happy Family.
In addition to commercial acquisitions, the legal team manages employment law, antitrust, intellectual property, food regulatory law and litigation. "Food class actions have really exploded in the last few years," Dowling said.
For help with class actions, many of which originate in California, Dannon turns to Arnold & Porter’s San Francisco office. Venable does general marketing-related legal work and Hogan Lovells’ Washington office helps with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. Connecticut firm Pullman & Comley provides general legal services when the work flow exceeds the in-house capacity.
"We’re such a small legal team that to manage the ebb and flow of work it’s nice to have someone you can reach out to," Dowling said. "In our company we live by four characteristics: commitment, openness, being a doer and empowerment. The outside counsel we use exhibit these."
The company mainly pays outside counsel by the hour and tries to limit fees by, for example, refusing to allow two attorneys at a firm to have a conversation about a Dannon matter. "We typically receive advice from partners who are experts in the field," she said. "They’ll give you an answer you need in 20 minutes, whereas an associate would spend two days researching it."
Dowling laughed when asked about her typical work day — so broad is the range of legal matters she confronts. "There is no average day," she said. "I start with a list of things I want to accomplish and sometimes by 6 p.m. I get to start that."
Dannon’s headquarters is an open-office environment, and Dowling sits near the company’s other executives. "It’s an exciting place to work for that reason, because you really feel like you’re a partner in the business and not in a legal library researching issues."
ACTIVIA, DANACTIVE LAWSUITS
Handling class actions and food law regulatory matters is a major component of Dowling’s job. In 2010, a federal judge approved a $45 million settlement of a class action over the company’s advertising of its Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drink products. The suit had accused the company of false advertising for exaggerating claims that Activia aided digestion and that DanActive boosted the immune system.
Soon afterwards, the company agreed to pay $21 million to settle similar allegations brought by 39 state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Earlier this year, Dannon won dismissal of a class action in the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs had alleged the company wrongly ­marketed Activia as yogurt when it contained milk protein concentrate, an additive the plaintiffs argued was an impermissible ingredient.
The experiences have given Dowling insight into how to simultaneously manage regulatory investigations and class actions. "If you receive a class action or FTC investigation, be aware they may occur together," she said. "Consider all the stakeholders and think strategically. We found experts in FTC law and class action matters and they weren’t all from the same firm. We put together a team from different law firms."
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Dowling graduated from the Univer­sity of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1984 and enrolled in what’s now called the University of Florida Levin College of Law, graduating in 1987.
She worked briefly as an associate at the now defunct Chicago firm of Keck, Mahin & Cate. She then spent 10 years as an in-house attorney for The Procter & Gamble Co., which she credited with providing her with a solid introduction to corporate matters. Her rotations included a stint as a brand assistant for Pampers diapers. She recommends that company as a training ground.
"They believe in giving a breadth of experience to their in-house counsel," she said. "They hire you early in your career, and I worked on environmental matters, mergers and acquisitions, trademarks and advertising."
Later, she worked for two years for Sears, Roebuck and Co., for a while under Anastasia Kelly, now co-managing partner for the Americas for DLA Piper, who remains a mentor. She worked for two years at World Kitchen LLC, a smaller consumer products company, before joining Dannon in 2006.
"Dannon is a small company inside a big company," Dowling said. "It has all the benefits of a collegial setting with all the resources of a major company."
A native of Fort Mitchell, Ky., Dowling has three children, aged 17 to 22. She serves on the parents’ committee of Washington University and is co-chair of the University of Chicago’s Westchester County, N.Y., alumni committee.
LAST BOOK AND PLAY
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, and Lucky Guy, with Tom Hanks on Broadway.