Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's

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This is the first book to tell the full inside story of the inspiring rise, tragic mistakes, devastating fall, determined recovery, and renewed social contribution and success of one of the most iconic mission-driven companies in the world: Ben & Jerry's.

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Contents

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Main Characters

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In alphabetical order, with jobs and (favorite Ben & Jerrys flavor):

Andrea Asch, manager of natural resources use since 1992 (From Russia with Buzz)

Liz Bankowski, board, 199099, director of social mission, 19912001, Ben & Jerrys Foundation board since 1994 (Cherry Garcia)

Bruce Bowman, chief operations officer, 19852000

Jane Bowman, human resources director since 2005 (Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch)

Merritt Chandler, board 198796 (Peace Pops)

Ben Cohen, cofounder, board 19772000, chair 197798, vice chair 19982000 (Cherry Garcia)

Yves Couette, CEO, board, 20014

Daryn Dodson, board since 2012 (Phish Food)

Tom DUrso, treasurer, 19942000 (Pistachio Pistachio)

Jon Entine, investigative journalist (doesnt eat Ben & Jerrys)

Pierre Ferrari, board since 1997, chair, 200710 (Cherry Garcia)

Walt Freese, chief marketing officer, 20014, CEO, 200510, board 200510

Howard Howie Fuguet, legal counsel 19842000 and 200911 (Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz)

Jeff Furman, board since 1982, board chair since 2010, and board of Ben & Jerrys Foundation since 1985 (Cherry Garcia Frozen Yogurt, for health reasons)

 

1978

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Were Completely Insane, and We Need Your Help!

Jennifer Henderson cant forget the day in 1988 that she met Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, and Jeff Furman. Ben and Jerry were famous, and I was a young community organizer, so I was excited, she said. They were starting a new organization, and they wanted a bunch of people to get on board.

We met in a big room that had a thin wooden divider down the middle. They started talking, and pretty soon Ben got all excited. He was waving his arms and saying all kinds of things, like how he was going to prevent war by printing up a million bumper stickers. He was shouting and getting red in the face and I was thinking, this guy needs professional help. They all had long hair, Ben and Jeff had big wild beards, and they were wearing old T-shirts. Jerry was just sitting there beaming. Jeff was very calm, like he knew some secret reason why this was actually going to work. It was not at all what I expected.

We took a break, and I went to the other side of the divider and called a girlfriend and told her that I had met these crazy people, and she just wouldnt believe what they were like. I forgot that the divider was really thin, so everybody could hear me. When I came back in, Ben rushed up to me and said, Yes! Youre right! Were completely insane, and we need your help! Then they took us down the street to where they had a store, and Ben scooped us all ice cream cones. He didnt introduce himself to the people there or anything. He just walked behind the counter and started in, with everybody staring at him.

 

1981

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A New Kind of Start-up

Before you can understand how Ben, Jerry, Jeff, and their friends devised a new way of doing business, you must understand the times that produced them. They stumbled into their success by entering a new market niche at exactly the right moment. They called their ice cream homemade, but the industry named it super-premium. This kind of ice cream is usually sold in pints and has a high fat content. Premium ice cream is somewhat less rich and dense and is usually sold in larger containers. There are regular and economy versions of ice cream, too, but Ben and his customers didnt see the point of them.

Ben & Jerrys ice cream is about 16 percent butterfat, and the company does not allow much air into the mix. This makes the product dense. When properly frozen, it is as hard as a rock, which means that it is best enjoyed when partially thawed. It is more trouble to handle, more fattening, and more expensive than regular ice cream, but none of that mattered to Ben and Jerry in 1977. Only the taste mattered.

 

1988

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Progressive Sweatshop

The Bright Young Lad came up for his job interview in the fall of 1987. Charles M. Chuck Lacy was stuck in an unsatisfying job when a friend, Jeff Furman, told him that Ben & Jerrys needed managers. Chuck was twenty-nine, had an MBA from Cornell, and was newly married. He loved the Green Mountains, and he also liked what he saw at Waterbury. They had courage, he said. Also, they were hilarious.

Ben and Chico called Chuck the bright young lad and saved up jobs as they waited for him to arrive. Chuck spent his first day looking for the keys to the Cowmobile, a mobile ice cream stand, because it hadnt been started in a while. He asked Chico if he could see a copy of the budget, and Chico told him that they didnt really have a very good budget yet, and they definitely should, so why didnt Chuck write a better one? He was appointed director of safety on his second day, after a worker fell off a ladder and broke a bone. It was a baptism of fire, but also exciting, he said. Ben was intense and inspiring and also kind of mysterious. Chico had a magic touchpeople would do anything for him. And the company was just exploding.

 

1990

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Staffing the Social Mission

Liz Bankowski was the first woman on the board of Ben & Jerrys, which was a big deal for a company that prided itself on having progressive values. But her value to the company went far beyond symbolism. She was just what Ben & Jerrys needed to take the social mission to the next level. She was a political professional who knew how to generate support for social initiatives, rearrange employee resources to push them forward, get them done in a focused way, and evaluate the results so that the company would do a better job next time.

Liz was one of several new faces who had a big effect on Ben & Jerrys in the 1990s. Another was Fran Rathke, a big-firm CPA who had graduated from the University of Vermont and wanted to settle in Burlington. When Fran showed up in April 1989, Chuck and Chico finally got someone who had the potential to become the companys first chief financial officer (CFO). Whenever something happened or a new idea emerged, Fran could give the board and top managers a realistic view of the financial impacts and options.

 

1993

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Money Starts Talking

The Scooperdome went up in the winter of 1993. It was a glowing tent as large as a football field and as tall as an eight-story building. It made a huge bright spot in the subarctic gloom of St. Albans, Vermont, a hard-bitten village where one of the big employers was a state prison. Underneath the dome, dozens of construction workers prepared the foundation for an ice cream plant that promised two hundred new full-time jobs.

The employees of Ben & Jerrys could hardly wait. After eight years of hard, constant use, the Waterbury factory and its employees were badly in need of relief. Since 1989, some of the companys ice cream had been made at a Dreyers plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana; more recently, the company had rented space at the St. Albans dairy co-ops facilities for a production line. But these were temporary fixes. The St. Albans plant was another watershed for Ben & Jerrys, which was planning to hire its five hundredth employee. They had been building and hiring to keep up with growth for more than a decade. St. Albans was going to get ahead of the growth. And while the ice cream plant at Waterbury was cramped and cobbled together, St. Albans was going to be sleek and up to date.

 

1994

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Yo, Im Not Your CEO

In the summer of 1994, the transition teamChico, Chuck, and Liz, with help from Merritt and others as neededbegan unwinding the problems at the St. Albans plant and working on solutions. Meanwhile, Jeff and Liz ran the search for a new CEO. In May, at the same meeting at which the board decided to abandon the salary ratio and conduct the search, they had come up with an idea that smacked of pure, old-fashioned Ben & Jerrys style. It was distracting, inefficient, hilarious, and brilliant.

Ben unveiled a poster that was modeled on the armys Uncle Sam Wants YOU design, with a photo of a scowling Ben and Jerry pointing, wearing top hats, and saying We Want You To Be Our CEO. Anyone could apply by sending in a one-hundred-word essay. I believe this is the first time in the history of corporate America that a CEO has been recruited on telephone poles, Ben wrote.

Loyal customers jumped at their chance to show Ben and Jerry their stuff. The company received another avalanche of free publicity and more than twenty-five thousand entries, including:

 

1997

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The Gulf Was So Wide

When Perry Odak became the CEO of Ben & Jerrys, the media crowed that the peaceniks had hired a leader from a company that made guns. They also said that Perry was a down-to-earth guy from a Hudson Valley farm who had worked his way through Cornell by milking cows. They got the facts right, but they buried the lead.

Perry was a turnaround specialist. He was the man Fred Miller had suggested in the days following Bob Hollands resignation, and he did what he was hired to do. Starting in January 1997, he executed a plan that worked brilliantly for shareholders. The companys financial condition began improving shortly after he arrived. He brought focus and skillful planning to every aspect of the operation, and he gave the social mission the resources it needed to keep moving ahead. But that isnt all he did.

Perrys career had followed a pattern. He had spun off companies for sale when he worked at Atari in the 1980s. In the 1990s, as a management consultant, he helped a holding company cut its debt by selling fifteen companies in just nine months. He even merged two dairy companies just two years before he arrived at Ben & Jerrys. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, said Pierre Ferrari, who joined the board of Ben & Jerrys in 1997. Perry took on organizations that had run into some kind of trouble, turned them around, and then sold them. He approached everything with that kind of attitude. You know, every problem is a nail if youre a hammer.

 

Late 1990s

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Leading with Progressive Values

Perry Odak and most board members of Ben & Jerrys had huge differences of opinion about how to run the business. But Perry also put the business back in gear. Each component of the three-part mission did well under his leadership. Nobody disagreed about the ice cream: it was still delicious, people still loved it, and they ate more and more of it. The social mission was doing fine, too, as employee execution of social initiatives continued to improve.

Perrys attitude toward the three-part mission was Lets make the economics work first. Lets find the right product and the right format, he told a class at Cornell in 2000. And then with that, how do you practice in a caring way to minimize impact on the environment, to give back to the communities where you operate, to make sure that people are paid properly, and so on. We put the economic mission ahead when we start something new, and then bring the social mission up alongside of it as we go.1

The approach Perry described sounded close to the vision that Ben, Jerry, Jeff, Jennifer, and Pierre had, but there was a crucial difference. The founders and their allies insisted that the three parts of Ben & Jerrys mission had to be equal. The companys breakthrough successes would come from taking risks other companies were not willing to take, they said. The careful, risk-averse strategy Perry followed was not what they were used to, and it also wasnt what they wanted.

 

2000

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The Sale Agreements

Richard Goldsteins office was on the twenty-first floor of Lever House, the landmark mid-twentieth-century skyscraper in midtown Manhattan where Unilever executives ran their North American operations. The first time Ben and Jerry met him there, They had to walk down a corridor to get to our conference room, he said. And they took their time, chatting with everybody. They stopped at each desk and gave all the secretaries coupons for free ice cream.

They were dressed in T-shirts and jeans, just like they dressed in Vermont. To them, nothing had changedthey just happened to be in New York. The staff never forgot them, though, and Ben and Jerry did the same thing every time they showed up. But then the meetings would start, and there were many, many meetings. This wasnt a quick deal.

Goldstein says he charmed and reassured Ben and Jerry until they decided they could trust him. At the same time, he worked to narrow their options until the price of holding on to the company became too high. Although Ben and Jerry tried to put a good face on the deal, it was intensely painful for both of them. Ben summed up their feelings about the sale when he said, It was just about the worst day of my life.1

 

2008

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Counterattack

Jeff Furman didnt take it easy after Ben & Jerrys was sold. He refocused his activist energies on other organizations. He served on several local and national boards, including the Ithaca School Board, where he ran on a promise to begin a long-term commitment to eliminating race and class as predictors of performance. He tried to bring the concerns of low-income people to business and government. He stayed busy, and he mostly left Ben & Jerrys alone. But in 2007, he found that he couldnt ignore the company any more. We couldnt get off square one with Unilever, he said. We talked endlessly about the social mission and read lots of reports, but it was clear that we were losing ground.

We were getting by on our old reputation, but I was having a hard time believing that we still deserved it. I had been around the longest, and I knew the founders best, and the other board members often looked to me to see how I would react. If I didnt challenge Unilever, they wouldnt either. So I finally decided that it was up to me.

 

Thirteen Pursuing Linked Prosperity

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Pursuing Linked Prosperity

Three years after John made the call, on the morning of January 19, 2013, in the ballroom of a Las Vegas resort, about three hundred people gathered for the annual meeting of the independent businesspeople who own Ben & Jerrys stores. The crowd buzzed about the afternoon they had just spent together at the Shade Tree, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Store owners and employees, many wearing well-designed T-shirts made for the meeting, had painted, hauled trash, fixed things, and handed out free ice cream to smiling women and delighted children. They had also contributed $3,000 to the shelter, a donation the company had triple-matched. The annual meeting had included a project like this every year since 1996.

The program that morning was a lot like the company: it was smart, friendly, and fun. Banners on the stage were decorated with doodles of ice cream cones and peace signs, interspersed with enthusiastic phrases like Great Idea! printed in a font that looked like lower-case handwriting. People wiped away tears as they watched a slide show of themselves hugging their new Shade Tree friends, as the song Home by Phil Phillips, the 2012 winner of American Idol, boomed over the loudspeakers. Then, after a lot of thanking, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took the stage.

 

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