Fromageries Bel History

16, boulevard Malesherbes
75008 Paris

Telephone: (33)
Fax: (33)

Public Company
Incorporated: 1922 as S.A. Fromageries Bel, La Vache Qui Rit
Employees: 7,807
Sales: FFr 8.62 billion (US $1.5 billion) (1996)
Stock Exchanges: Paris
SICs: 5143 Dairy Products Except Dried or Canned

Company Perspectives:

Since the end of the 1980s, a strategy of internal and external development in the principal cheese consumption countries of Europe (Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Portugal), as well as the United States, have permitted an expansion of the range of nationally recognized brand names. All of the brands of Group Bel, regardless of their nationality, represent a guarantee of quality for millions of consumers. The position of these brands in their markets is the result of a dynamic commercial strategy, and an irreplaceable experience and know-how in cheese-making, associated with cutting edge technology. This is the work of one of the premier European cheese makers, Group Bel.

Company History:

Fromageries Bel is France's third largest cheese producer, after Besnier and Bongrain. Together these three companies produce more than half of the total cheese sales in the country with the highest per capita cheese consumption in the world. Whereas Besnier and Bongrain concentrate on pressed and molded cheese varieties, Bel has captured more than 75 percent of the French "melted" cheese market&mdash′incipally through its legendary brand, La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow)--while possessing a strong domestic and international presence in this and other cheese varieties. With 23 production plants, including 14 plants located outside of France, Bel products reach consumers in 90 countries. French sales account for 42 percent of the company's 1996 annual sales of FFr 8.6 billion. The company's aggressive international expansion during the 1990s, however, has increased its European sales (outside of France) by more than 60 percent in just five years; these sales account for some 38 percent of Bel's annual sales. Since the mid-1990s, Bel has targeted the United States for further growth. In 1996 the company acquired "cold pack" leader Kaukauna Cheese Inc., of Wisconsin, doubling its U.S. presence. Asia and the Middle East also form important markets for the company.

A public company since the 1950s, Fromageries Bel has maintained its independence through the 60 percent shareholder position of La Carbonique, a holding company operated by the Bel family. La Carbonique also holds 85 percent of the company's voting rights, making Bel practically invulnerable to any potential takeover attempts. Since the retirement of long-time company president Robert Fiévet, son-in-law of La Vache Qui Rit creator, Léon Bel, the company has been directed by Bertrand Dufort, son-in-law of Fiévet.

Bel's chief asset is its portfolio of brand names. In addition to the internationally recognized La Vache Qui Rit, which is marketed worldwide under translations specific to each country market, the company's brands include Bonbel, Babybel, Apericube, Kiri, Port Salut, Pik et Croq, as well as a strong list of country-specific brands, including Wispride, Price's, and Kaukauna in the United States. The company's annual production tops 220,000 tons, using nearly three million liters of milk. Bel also produces a variety of industrial food-grade products, including milk and cheese cultures, and other materials for chocolate, ice cream, meat processing, and other food industries.

A Symbol for the Century in the 1920s

That the Bel family-owned company began not as a cheese producer, but rather as a maturing house for locally produced cheeses, might have provided the proper environment for the product that would make the company's name and fortune. In a country where the production of cheeses remained a craft and tradition until well into the 20th century and where each locality's specialty cheese variety received a reverence as great as its local wine, the invention of a new type of cheese could be regarded as revolutionary. Yet La Vache Qui Rit would become more than a new type of cheese--indeed, the Laughing Cow would grow into one of the most loved symbols of 20th century France.

Jules Bel founded the family business in 1865, in France's Jura region, near the Swiss border and sharing its neighbor's favored meal of cheese fondue. Production of the local molded cheese specialties, comté, a variety of gruyere, and emmenthal, also known as "Swiss" cheese, was by then already a cooperative endeavor. Dairy farmers delivered their milk to the local cheese maker, who was responsible for processing the milk into rounds of gruyere, as well as other cheese varieties. Once formed, the rounds underwent an aging process, a step assured by master-refiner Jules Bel. Opening his business in Orgelet, Bel offered the vaulted wine cellars of a former Capuchin convent, which had been abandoned since the French Revolution, for the curing of the local cooperative's cheeses. Bel also acted as a clearinghouse for the sale of the matured cheese.

Jules Bel was joined and then succeeded by son Léon Bel. Toward the end of the First World War, the younger Bel's attention was attracted by the leftovers of unsold comté and emmenthal. Rather than allow them to go to waste, Bel believed he could find a use for the leftover rounds, and he set about experimenting with creating a new type of cheese. Installing the company business, which also began its own production of gruyere and Swiss cheeses, in nearby Lons-le Saunier, Bel developed a "fondu" or melted cheese by blending the leftover comté and emmenthal, as well as other cheese varieties. Bel's cheese, apart from its unique flavor, retained a softened, easily molded consistency and, being cooked, also offered a long preservation life. Yet the cheese's success would come especially from Léon Bel's flair for marketing.

In 1921 Bel registered a trademark name for his product: La Vache Qui Rit. Bel was not content merely to present his cheese under this odd and evocative name, but recognized as well the importance of its packaging. Turning to one of France's most celebrated graphic designers of the time, Benjamin Rabier, noted especially for his drawings and caricatures of animals and with whom Bel had served in the French army during the First World War, Bel commissioned a symbol that would give life to the cheese's name. By 1922 Rabier had succeeded in "making a cow laugh." Bel incorporated his company as Fromageries Bel, La Vache Qui Rit and began production in that year.

La Vache Qui Rit, sold in small, round metal containers, featuring Rabier's design, as well as the product's prominent description as a "modern cheese," would prove quickly popular throughout France--and, given its name and design, appealed particularly to France's children. Bel went even further to popularize his product, displaying a flair for modern advertising techniques as well. An early advertiser on France's new radio networks, Bel would employ a wide variety of media and techniques, including posters, but also innovations such as a six-day bicycle race ("Les Six Jours de la Vache Qui Rit"), rivaling the already traditional Tour de France, other competitions and games, comparative advertising campaigns, as well as including children's gifts such as trading cards with the cheese's packaging. In 1926 Bel also took the step, unusual for the time, of creating a separate publicity department; among the new department's activities was the use of consumer research techniques, such as questionnaires and tasting groups.

Bel continued to perfect his cheese recipe, producing a still softer, flavorful product, while touting its natural ingredients, as well as its high fat content (important to the quality of a cheese). The company also would quickly recognize the rising popularity of snack foods, packaging the cheese into its famous, and eminently snackable, triangular-shaped portions. By the beginning of the 1930s La Vache Qui Rit also had become an international favorite, crossing the Channel into England. There the company made another important decision: rather than market the cheese under its French name, Bel chose to translate the brand directly into that country's language. "The Laughing Cow" would eventually be joined by such siblings as "La Vaca Que Rie," "Den Leende Ko," "Vesela Kráva," "A Vaca Que Ri," and many others. As such, the cheese and its package would become an internationally recognized symbol on the scale of another rising product of the time, Coca Cola.

In 1933 the company expanded into Belgium, opening its first foreign production plant. Soon after, Léon Bel was joined by son-in-law Robert Fiévet. In 1937 Bel named Fiévet as the company's CEO; in 1957 Fiévet took over the company's presidency. If Léon Bel had succeeded in establishing La Vache Qui Rit as a successful product, Fiévet would build the company into one of the top three cheese producers in France.

Expanding in the Mid-20th Century

Under Fiévet, Bel, which had continued to produce its own gruyere and emmenthal cheese, began expanding its line of brand names. In 1938 the company introduced a new pressed cheese, under the name Bonbel, playing on the French word for "good." Bonbel, too, proved successful with the French--and international--consumer. Bonbel would be followed by the launch of other successful brands, such as Babybel, in 1952; Apéricube, ideal for the growing cocktail trend of the late 1950s; Kiri, a cream cheese for "the gourmet in short pants" of the 1960s; and the 1970s Port Salut. These brands, together with La Vache Qui Rit, would spearhead the company's international development.

In the 1950s Bel prepared to step up its growth beyond France's borders. With Fiévet named as president, Bel reorganized, moved its headquarters to Paris, and listed on the Paris Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, La Vache Qui Rit was undergoing a transformation. Its famous drawing, unchanged since the 1920s, had begun to age with the consumer. The company commissioned a new design, which, although building on the original, brought La Vache Qui Rit closer to its final form, that of a simplified graphic symbol, rather than an illustration. The restructuring of the company, meanwhile, was also transforming its business model, as the company's strategy turned toward a focus on expansion of its branded products within specific product categories.

By the late 1950s Bel's attention turned toward expansion. Beyond promoting its brand names, the company set upon a course of expanding its domestic and international presence. The first step was achieved in 1959, when the company formed a new subsidiary, Belco, bringing the company's production facilities to Germany. This subsidiary was joined by a move into Spain in the mid-1960s. At home, the company also began acquiring other cheese producers and their cheese varieties, including the purchase of Graf in 1960, Rentz, and its molded cheeses, in 1962, and Fromageries Picon and the dairy Société Laitière Vendômoise in 1968.

Bel stepped up its expansion in the 1970s, beginning with the 1970 acquisition of Albany Cheese, which brought the company into the United States, and the purchase of the Agricole de Roquefort et Maria Grimal, adding the important Roquefort variety to the company's product line; the following year the company added the Société Samos, of France. The Albany Cheese purchase, with plants in Kentucky, would introduce the United States to The Laughing Cow, as well as the company's other brands. In 1973 the company acquired British cheese maker Crowson and Son Ltd., before forming subsidiaries Sogedis and Cofroma, expanding its facilities into Switzerland and Morocco in 1974. The successful launch of the company's Port Salut brand in 1976 was joined by several new cheese varieties, including molded Brie and Camembert cheeses. That same year Bel acquired Société Anonyme des Fermiers Reúnis (SAFR) and its subsidiaries in Germany, Italy, England, and Sweden. The company's international growth would be accompanied not only by the expansion of its core French brands into these new markets, but also by the development of country-specific brand names and cheese varieties.

By the late 1970s a new generation was entering the family-owned company, with the appointment of Bertrand Dufort, Fiévet's son-in-law, to the position of the company's vice-president. Fiévet, however, would remain the company's president for nearly 20 more years and lead it into its strongest growth years. In 1981 the company simplified its name, to Fromageries Bel. A new subsidiary, Beldis, was added in the Netherlands in 1983, but the company's biggest expansion would occur during the mid-1980s. Beginning in 1985, Bel began acquiring the cheese making activities of Swiss giant Nestlé, including its Price's and Wispride brands in the United States, doubling the company's revenues. Although the company had long since captured more than 75 percent of the French soft cheese markets, the expansion of its U.S. activities would also bring the company head-to-head with its chief rival, Kraft, and that company's assorted cheese and cheese-like products. The Price's and Wispride acquisitions were quickly followed by the purchases of Adler in Germany and Fromagerie de Maredsous in Belgium. By the beginning of the 1990s, Bel had grown to annual sales of nearly FFr 7 billion, of which nearly one-third was generated beyond France.

A Firm Family Grip in the 1990s

Bel was not alone as a French cheese powerhouse. Another group, Besnier, led by Michel Besnier, had been performing its own aggressive expansion--and nearly single-handed consolidation of the French dairy industry. Besnier, along with the other leading cheese producer Bongrain, had developed its presence most strongly in the pressed and molded cheese segments. In 1993, however, Besnier began eyeing Bel and its lock on the French melted cheese market. Beginning in January of that year, Besnier, whose own company was private and entirely owned by the Besnier family, began purchasing shares in Bel. From 1993 to September 1994, Besnier succeeded in raising his stake in Bel's voting rights from five percent to more than 20 percent. Indeed, Bel seemed an easy target: Fiévet was by then 84 years old and the Bel family was afflicted with the succession issues common among such family-owned enterprises. Besnier, however, had reckoned without considering La Carbonique, the holding company set up by the Bel family as early as 1921 and operated, since 1970, as the Bel company's majority shareholder. With 60 percent of Bel's stock and the overwhelming majority of the company's voting rights, Bel was easily able to face the threat of a takeover. As the company told Le Point, "Our capital is totally locked up. Nothing can happen."

The issue of succession seemed settled when, in 1995, Fiévet stepped down from the company's leadership, taking the title of honorary president. Son-in-law and longtime partner Bertrand Dufort was named as the company's new president and CEO. Meanwhile, the company reorganized its structure, creating a new division to guide its domestic activities and placing the United States, Portugal, Italy, and Spain operations under its headquarters, while regrouping its other European subsidiaries under Bel Europe and its further international subsidiaries (chiefly Asia, Africa, and the Middle East) under the Bel International Division.

Bel continued to make acquisitions during the 1990s. In 1994 the company acquired Cademartori in Italy and Quesarias Ibéricas in Spain. Its German subsidiaries, Adler and Belco, were fused to create Bel Adler Allgäu Gmbh & Co. Ohg. The company increased its presence in Portugal in 1996, with the 51 percent purchase of Lacto Ibérica. This acquisition placed Bel as that country's leading cheese producer. That same year, however, saw Bel make an important move to increase its U.S. presence: with the purchase of Kaukauna Cheese Inc., of Wisconsin, Bel more than doubled its U.S. sales. For the future, Bel could look forward to further international growth, while continuing to enjoy the worldwide success--and international recognition--of its La Vache Qui Rit.

Principal Subsidiaries: Fromageries Picon; Omnium du Lait et ses Dérivés; Société Anonyme des Fermiers Réunis; Sofico; Fromageries Bel Extension Belge; Bel Cheese USA; Bel UK; Belisa (Spain); Queser&iacute Bel Espana; Sialim (Morocco); F.B. Holding B.V. (Netherlands); Fromageries Bel Italia; Queser&iacute Ibéricas (Spain); Lacto Ibérica (Portugal).

Further Reading:

  • Bonazza, Patrick, and Gubert, Romain, "Trois Familles à Couteaux Tirés," Le Point, October 15, 1994, p. 85.
  • Mitteaux, Valerie, "La Vache Qui Rit: Marylin de la Marque," Prodimarques/La Revue des Marques, April 1994, p. 23.
  • Fromageries Bel, "Le Groupe Bel," Paris, 1997.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 23. St. James Press, 1998.