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Life and Work

Lessons learned the hard way

Former Vermont Bread CEO Lisa Lorimer speaks about small business issues at Brattleboro event

BRATTLEBORO—When it comes to learning about a business from the ground up, Lisa Lorimer has definitely been there and done that.

As a 21-year-old in 1982, she took a job as an assistant distribution manager with a small wholesale bakery on a dirt road in Guilford called Innisfree Farm, after the W.B. Yeats poem.

She arrived just as Innisfree Farm was switching over from making organic cookies to baking organic whole wheat bread. From one mixer and one pizza oven, Innisfree quickly grew and Lorimer played a big role in that growth spurt.

But after five years, Lorimer thought she had learned enough that she was set to buy a small bakery in western Massachusetts. She was ready to leave Innisfree, but instead, the company came back to her with a counteroffer to buy out one of the three owners.

Innisfree ultimately became the Vermont Bread Company, Lorimer eventually became the controlling partner, and the company grew into the largest producer of all-natural, premium, and certified organic breads and muffins in the Northeastern United States.

The whole life cycle of business — from the first job, to building a company into the largest woman-owned manufacturing firm in Vermont, to managing and maintaining growth as its CEO, to cashing out — is the story of the last three decades of Lorimer’s life.

She’ll talk about those lessons on Sunday, Sept. 12, at 1 p.m., at Union Institute & University’s Brattleboro Academic Center, 3 University Way on Old Guilford Road at VABEC.

Lorimer recently co-authored a book with Birkenstock founder Margot Fraser, Dealing with the Tough Stuff: Practical Wisdom for Running a Values-Driven Business. The book features true stories about the real pitfalls of running a business and outlines struggles faced by business leaders.

“We just told the truth,” said Lorimer, who graduated from UI&U in 1993. “When you’re running a small business, you can get tied up in your experiences and forget that there are others going through the same thing. The point of the book was to make the whole process of being an entrepreneur more accessible to people and that it’s not hard to start a business as long as you can find the right people to help you.”

Lorimer, 49, was already a successful entrepreneur when she began her degree program at UI&U, and she is passionate about the education she received.

“My experience was transformational,” said Lorimer. “I had a chance to study and go deep and find my voice as a writer. The book never would have happened without it.”

Lorimer sold her share of the business to CharterHouse Group Inc., a New York-based private equity firm, in 2004. She said she remains a significant investor and board member of the successor company, Charter Baking, which merged Vermont Bread with three other organic and natural bakeries to create the nation’s largest manufacturer of natural and organic baked goods.

At the time she sold Vermont Bread, it was doing about $20 million in annual sales from its plant on Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro. Lorimer said she was getting burned-out running the business “and that is not a healthy place to be in when running a business.”

She also said she discovered that it was hard to run a small, stand-alone company in a field that was becoming dominated by bigger companies.

“I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, simply because Vermont Bread wasn’t big enough,” she said. “At the same time, I didn’t want to sell to anyone who could not guarantee that the jobs would stay in Brattleboro. That’s why I stayed on the board after the sale. Now, we have more people working in Brattleboro than we did when I was the owner, and the plant is producing more bread.”

After graduating from UI&U, Lorimer later completed the three-year Owner President Management Program at Harvard Business School. She is also an alumna of the Vermont Leadership Institute’s inaugural class of 1996, and now serves as a faculty member.

Lorimer also serves on the Board of Directors of the Vermont Community Foundation and the Snelling Center for Government at the University of Vermont. She served as a delegate to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business, where she served on the Research Advisory Committee for the Peace & Justice Center’s Vermont Job Gap Study Basic Needs and Livable Wage report in 1998.

The Sept. 12 event, which is free and open to the public, will also feature door prizes and a chance to win an Amazon Kindle. For more information and to RSVP, contact the Brattleboro Center at or 802-257-9411.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #66 (Wednesday, September 8, 2010).

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