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US: Ben and Jerry's Plans to Lick Global Warming

by Lottie Moggach Financial Times
May 21st, 2005

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, is sitting in the lounge of a large chain hotel near London's Gloucester Road. Aside, perhaps, from a Häagen-Dazs shop, it is hard to imagine a less appropriate setting. For those unfamiliar with the area, it is a soulless stretch of west London, dominated by traffic-clogged roads and slightly seedy mansion blocks. The hotel is decorated in a cheap, bland, "international" style, with sub-Monet prints on the walls and white bread rolls pre-laid on its lunch tables.

It is, in other words, the antithesis of the quirky, homespun brand that Greenfield represents. Neither is it a place for a wealthy businessman, which he also represents. Greenfield, however, does not seem to mind. He is calm and agreeable. When I point out a dead fly in his coffee, he chuckles. Perhaps he has more important issues on his mind. He has just stepped off a flight from Greenland, where he spent a few days with explorer Marc Corneilissen. What was it like? "Very cold, sparsely populated - and melting."

This trip is part of Ben & Jerry's "Lick Global Warming" campaign. Last month, in protest against the US government's proposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Park, the company made a 1,000lb Baked Alaska and left it to melt outside the Capitol. "It is such an overwhelming issue and although there is awareness not nearly enough is being done about it." To this end, the company has set up a Climate Change College, which, each year for three years, will train six spokespeople for the cause. "The leaders of tomorrow," Greenfield says. "They will be taking over from me very soon."

Greenfield, 54, looks like he has a few years left in him yet. He is cuddly, but not nearly as fat as someone who has spent 27 years surrounded by ice cream should be. "I try not to eat it every day," he says. Each employee in the company gets three free pints a day. Are they fat? "No. I think when people first come in, they consume a lot, and then it tapers off. They give it to their friends and family. It has become a major source of barter in the Vermont economy."

The image of happy New Englanders leaning over their picket fences to exchange tubs of Phish Food is one the company has been keen to encourage since starting out in an abandoned petrol station in 1978. "It was built on the foundation that business has a responsibility to give back to the community," says Greenfield.

The Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield story has become folklore in business circles; the two young hippies who took a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making and ended up with a multimillion-dollar business. "The idea was to do something that was going to be fun, where we could be our own bosses," Greenfield explains. After "pretty much failing at everything else", Greenfield was rejected by medical school, "we thought we'd do something with food, because we liked to eat. We thought we would do food that was catching on in the cities but hadn't been brought to these rural college towns yet. And in the late 1970s the things that were catching on were homemade ice cream and bagels." Used bagel-making equipment was too expensive, so ice cream it was.

"We had grown up in the 1960s, and it was going to be 'ice cream for the people' - real high-quality ice cream at an affordable price," Greenfield adds. "But pretty soon, we were just interested in surviving." It took about five years for the company to go into profit. Once secure, they developed their social mission: to "actively recognise the central role business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally."

To that end, they set up the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which gave 7.5 per cent of pre-tax profits to charity; the highest amount of any privately held company. They published all their audits and set up a five to one salary ratio, where no one in the company earned more than five times the lowest paid scooper. In the workplace, Greenfield established the "Joy Gang", which distributed "wacky" prizes like cans of Spam and celebrated Barry Manilow's birthday. The scoopers were encouraged to wear jester hats.

Poor staff. The ice cream, however, became a hit. They set up their first franchise in 1981; by 1985 they were big enough to threaten Häagen-Dazs and by 1988 there were more than 80 Ben & Jerry's "scoop shops" across the country.

"As we began to prosper, we became more aware of the power of business," Greenfield says. "In the US, business has become the most powerful force in the country. Most businesses try to appear neutral but, in reality, are always taking political positions - lobbying to have fewer environmental regulations, to not raise the minimum wage. We didn't have a blueprint, it was a lot of trial and error. A lot of error."

He gives an example. "One of Ben's greatest ideas was when we were going to enter the market of New York City. He was riding the subway, and it was dirty and depressing, and so he thought - why not take the money we would spend on advertising and fix up a subway station? It will provide a service and people will find out about the ice cream. So he went through the incredibly complicated bureaucracy of NYC, going so far as learning how to remove chewing gum from the platforms. But we never got permission to do it.

"A lucky thing is that Ben doesn't mind failing," he continues. "Ben is this very creative, entrepreneurial person, who loves to try new things and doesn't mind making mistakes. He is the one who will create new flavours, do the marketing. I'm the one who is more comfortable with what Ben calls 'having a manageable agenda', so I would be in charge of ice cream production. We had complementary skills but similar values. But neither of us had any interest in finance - for a long time we kept no track of what was going on. It caused a few problems later."

In 1985 their sales showed an increase of 143 per cent from the year before; by 1989 that had fallen to 23 per cent, and in 1995 4.4 per cent. The same year they appointed a new chief executive; going about it, of course, in a Ben & Jerry's kind of way. They announced a contest called "YO! I'm Your CEO!", where the public were encouraged to apply for the job, in 100 words. In the end, however, the winning candidate, Robert Holland, formerly of management consultants McKinsey, came from a more traditional background. The five to one salary ratio changed to seven to one, and then, in 1998, to 16-1.

This was all fuel for critics of the company, who claimed Cohen and Greenfield were just peddling social conscience to gullible yuppies. And, of course, lefty businessmen are as easy a target as, well, a 1,000lb baked Alaska. Republican senator Ted Stevens said of that recent incident: "I suggest they use a horse and treadmill to run their ice cream machines if they are really concerned about decreasing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels."

Does Greenfield feel that by trying to be socially responsible they get more flak than companies who make no effort? "I think you get looked at more closely," he says, "but I think that is good. Throughout the years, we have got a lot of praise, and a lot of criticism, and I think when the company got praised it was more than we deserved, and when we got criticised it was more than we deserved. We make our fair share of mistakes, and that is because we are trying new things, and that's good.'

And what about the money? "I get the impression in business that for a lot of people money is a way of keeping score. It reaches the point when you can't really spend it all. I have a pretty modest lifestyle and I think I have more money than I need, and I am not really motivated to get more. What we learnt was that money by itself is how you measure success, but when you combine it with mission, that is the power. That's the highest form that business can take."

In 2000 they decided to sell for $326m to Unilever which, they say, supports their guiding principles. Besides, maintains Greenfield, it is in Unilever's interest to do so. "I want to get past the idea that if you are a caring company, that has to cost you money," says Greenfield. "Our experience has been totally the opposite. The more community-involved and environmentally concerned our company has been, the more financially successful. If you spend your marketing dollars getting involved in a community campaign, or set up a foundation and give money to non-profits, or source ingredients in an unusual way, there will be a time when people become aware of what the company is for, and they will want to support that. It's a longer term way of making a connection with customers but it's a genuine connection.'

He gives the example of their annual Free Cone day. "Don't you think, ultimately, it is good for an ice cream company to give away free ice cream?"

It is time for photographs; Greenfield gamely plunges a spoon into a pot of ice cream. The following day is the launch of the Climate Change College. Assorted media, representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenfield's wife of 30 years Elizabeth, and son Tyrone watch footage of polar bears who, presumably, don't really mind that the people trying to save their habitat are wearing Ben & Jerry's T-shirts.

If the choice is between sharing a sundae with Greenfield or, say, Senator Ted Stevens, I know which one I'd choose. Even if it means wearing a jester hat.

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