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Ivan Balenovic, president and CEO of Bothwell Cheese, at the site of their plant in New Bothwell, MB, where they are starting up a new cheese-aging facility.


Ivan Balenovic, president and CEO of Bothwell Cheese, at the site of their plant in New Bothwell, MB, where they are starting up a new cheese-aging facility.

SOMEHOW it was fitting that Bothwell Cheese's invitation-only 75th birthday party Friday inadvertently turned into a community open house.

The artisan cheese company in New Bothwell was celebrating its anniversary and showing off a brandnew 8,000-square-foot aging facility to invited guests, but a newspaper in a neighbouring town reported the event as an open house.

The presence of local families who came uninvited only added to the party atmosphere recognizing the company's singular success story, rooted as it is in the small, quiet farming community.

Formed as a co-op 75 years ago, it has had two new ownership groups since 2002.

Those kinds of ownership transitions almost always force some disruption, but Bothwell remains operating at the same location. Even though it has tripled sales and production in the past 10 years, its physical footprint has only just now become bigger with the new aging facility.

Ivan Balenovic, Bothwell's CEO and one of the ownership partners since 2002, said that including the $1.8-million aging facility, about $6 million has been invested since 2002.

"We have grown and automated quite a bit, but we are still an artisan cheese-maker," Balenovic said. "There are key steps throughout the process that require cheese-maker acknowledgement to go to the next level."

Automation has not eliminated jobs. The company employs 60 people, 50 per cent more than a decade ago, mostly from surrounding communities.

Balenovic was a longtime forestry industry executive before he joined with ENSIS Growth Fund to buy Bothwell Cheese in 2002.

Since then, the company has released a number of speciality varieties -- Bothwell makes 25 different cheeses now -- and has developed national distribution in major grocery chains, including Safeway, Sobeys, Costco and Loblaws.

It has won first place in the prestigious British Empire Cheese Competition five years in a row for its marble cheddar.

For all the business growth the company has achieved on his watch, Balenovic genuinely seems most excited about defending Bothwell's first-place standing at this year's BECC event in Belleville, Ont., Dec. 1.

"It's the one we're most proud of. We're hoping to make it six in a row."

Balenovic has his eye on the prize at Belleville next month, even while he's commissioning the new on-site aging operation.

For the past six years, the company has used a rented facility in Winnipeg, trucking the cheese 30 kilometres to the city for aging -- six weeks for mozzarella, nine months and more for cheddar -- and then back to New Bothwell for cutting and packaging.

Wendy Gibbons, part of the organizing committee of the BECC, said the event is dominated by Ontario and Quebec artisan cheese-makers, but Bothwell has become a fixture on the national scene.

Kathy Garland, deli category manager for meat and cheese at Sobeys West in Edmonton, said the Manitoba cheese-maker is likely the only independent cheese company in Canada with full national distribution.

Its West Coast presence was boosted a year and a half ago when Paradise Island Foods of Nanaimo, B.C., bought the equity stake held by Growthworks (which succeeded ENSIS).

The company is tight-lipped about sales and profit, but Bob Swain, a Winnipeg business consultant who helped organize the initial sale of the co-op to ENSIS and Balenovic, said all parties have done well at every stage.

Paradise makes cheese for the industrial food service business and distributes table cheese throughout B.C. and Alberta.

Len Thomson, one of the partners in Paradise Island Foods, said folks on the West Coast love Bothwell.

"It's very well received," Thomson said. "For one thing, there are no modified milk ingredients, which is uncommon in today's market."

The natural ingredients, made with 100 per cent fresh milk from southeastern Manitoba, and attention to quality down to the detailing on the labels and packaging, make Bothwell the go-to brand for all the major supermarkets as they introduce new, larger deli departments.

"It's a natural product, which is extremely important to customers today," Garland said. "It's also western Canadian unique cheese, and we are looking to promote more western Canadian products, especially in Western Canada."

John Graham, a spokesman for Safeway Canada, said Bothwell was in its Manitoba stores for many years and now it's a mainstay in Safeway deli fridges across the country.

"People love it," he said.


Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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