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So Long, Corner Office: McGraw Hill Publisher Follows Nose, Finds Cheese

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Petra Cooper had good reason to ditch her job running a $47 million business for a dairy.

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When Petra Cooper was young she wanted to be a scientist, and today she's "as close as I'm going to get in my life!"

Her career, however, has followed no ordinary path. She has been both an international executive and has milked sheep, in that order.

Five years ago, she was president of McGraw-Hill (MHP) Ryerson Higher Education in Toronto, a $47 million publishing unit. But she was also feeling bored and the work was taking a toll on her health.

Cooper originally took the job in Toronto (leaving a publishing post in Manhattan) to be near her mother, who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Unfortunately her mother died soon after, and to cope, Cooper immersed herself in her work.

She subsequently suffered a mini-stroke, pneumonia, and other illnesses.

During at least one stay at the hospital she continued to work on her laptop. And with the birth of her daughter in 2000, she finally decided that she'd had enough of the daily grind. Her corporate-flight story began.

At the age of 41, after almost 20 years building her publishing career, Cooper decided to make a change. What exactly that change would be wasn't immediately clear, but after some research, cheese became the change of choice.

Cooper is now the founder and CEO of Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, a successful dairy located in Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario.



The actual transition, however, took five years. In 2003, with her sights set on running her own business, Cooper started using her vacation time to take intensive cheese-making courses and was even an intern at the Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco.

She traveled the continent, scouring for good business practices and devouring the art of making cheese.

While at McGraw-Hill, Cooper was bouncing from meeting to meeting and constantly traveling. Now her days are equally busy, but full of networking with local farmers, getting her hands dirty in the cheese-making process, and spending time with her family.

Cooper, who lives across the street from the dairy with her husband and 9-year-old daughter, hasn't lost her competitive edge, however. She built her dairy with a strong emphasis on social and environmental concerns, and in doing so Fifth Town became the first Platinum LEED manufacturing facility in Canada.

Cooper says her choice to be "green" has helped make a better cheese, which has won more than 25 awards and is sold at specialty shops and farmer's markets around the area in addition to Ontario's two Whole Foods Markets (WFMI).

While the dairy -- now two years in business -- isn't yet profitable, Cooper expects to reach her breakeven point this year. The dairy's sales reached $1 million during the fiscal year that ended in March.

Fifth Town also received a federal government stimulus interest free loan, which is helping the dairy expand.

Growing the dairy is likely the last of her career changes though. "I can't afford to do another one like this," she says.

Her career path, however, isn't entirely unique in the ranks at Fifth Town, where her staff is scattered with former electrical engineers, gastro disease specialists, and artists who also became "second careerists" at the dairy.

Cooper said she would estimate that 60% to 70% of those in the artisanal cheese industry have come from corporate occupations.

She says that once you reach a certain point in your life, making more money isn't necessarily the goal.

"I'll never make as much money as I did in the corporate world," she says, adding that right now she's living the best of both worlds -- pursuing her love of food and dealing with sales and marketing, the parts she loved about her job at McGraw-Hill (of which she's still a shareholder).

While she's not exactly a scientist, at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Cooper finally gets to wear a lab coat to work.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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