Home Tiny Satellites A Tale of Two Gritty Ice Cream Socialists: Saving the Soul of Ben & Jerry's

A Tale of Two Gritty Ice Cream Socialists: Saving the Soul of Ben & Jerry's

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Whatever Happened to Ben & Jerry's?

All is revealed in “Ice Cream Social: The Struggle For the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s”

MADE IN THE SHADE: Local hero, Jeff Furman, right, and Brad Edmondson, local journalist. Furman sang, Edmondson recorded and reported.

Tiny Town, USA – Call them ice cream socialists.

When Jeff “The Ampersand” Furman, local businessman and chair of the board of Ben & Jerry’s, and Brad Edmondson, local writer, teamed up to document the history behind the Vermont-born ice cream business that sold itself to Unilever in 2000, they’d been yacking about it for a dozen years.

Furman was initially against a book. His coffee klatches with Edmondson were just a way to vent during his long, complicated struggle to save the company’s social mission. Furman just wanted to “talk about the story,” Edmondson says. Then Furman, the old hippie realist, with his graying beard and long silvery laurel wreath of hair, stepped back from his insider role and saw that the story had a message worth sharing.

Maybe in a magazine article?

Edmondson was firm: This was no one-off in a glossy. The Ben & Jerry’s story deserved full treatment in book form.

The result of their confabs is “Ice Cream Social: The Struggle For the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s” (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco), due out in January. Berrett Koehler’s catalog states “this is the first book to tell the full, inside story of the inspiring rise, tragic mistakes, devastating fall, determined recovery, and ongoing renewal of one of the most iconic mission-driven companies in the world.”

It’s a business saga with a local angle. Furman lives in Ithaca and is as much a piece of the company – he wrote their first business plan – as the two chubby guys who got it going. Hence the nickname “Ampersand.” He also helped to save the company from losing its three-part mission during the acquisition by Unilever.

That mission is Social (improve the quality of life wherever Ben & Jerry’s does business), Product (make the world’s best ice cream), and Economic (turn a reasonable profit). The three parts are equally important.  It’s the inverse of the usual business mission statement.

In 13 chapters, Edmondson describes the little company-that-could as it grows, stumbles, and is almost devoured by Unilever, social mission and all. But led by Furman and an intrepid board, the B&J brand learns to co-exist with the world’s second-largest food conglomerate. The struggle continues, but it’s a reasonably happy ending

The tale reads like a gritty 1940s-style novel about how the little guys win without compromising their “souls.” Oh, but they almost do. There is high drama, tension, sadness, buffoonery, stupidity, cupidity and heroism – and enough characters to give “It’s a Wonderful Life” a run for sentimental value.

With Furman as his Virgil, Edmondson traces Ben & Jerry’s path through a post-hippie-era Inferno. The  clash of a bottom-line corporate culture with a mission-driven independent vision is hair-raising, and Furman has little to spare.  The book’s goal is to stir the hearts of “entrepreneurs who aspire to combine profit with purpose,” Edmondson says. And maybe regular folks, too. Those who scream for ice cream and social justice in one fell scoop.

Let’s not forget: Even Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan awarded Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield the “Small Business of the Year” Award in 1988, a scene Edmondson describes as “a moment of sublime weirdness.”

It was anything but easy to get the story and the book's casual style hides this. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield declined to be interviewed, so Edmondson went into the hole like a rat terrier. “The deeper I dug, the more interesting it got,” he says. He interviewed about three dozen people and reviewed “several hundred pounds of internal documents,” he says, investing a solid year on the book. (Note: Despite the Vermont pedigree, Cohen and Greenfield are old Long Island boys).

Since the early 1980s, Ben & Jerry’s pursued their bottom line while advocating and applying its philosophy of “linked prosperity.” The idea is that everyone, including the cows, benefit from their product: Employees earn good wages, farmers are well paid, the product is packaged in biodegradable paper, and the company makes a strong commitment to the community.  That commitment included programs that teach kids how to become business people, such as the Ithaca Scoop Shop that was owned by The Learning Web, a local not-for-profit (it closed about a decade ago). Profits were fine, but ideals came first.

This vision survived, barely, during the long and complicated negotiation that lead to the company’s sale.  Under the sales agreement, Unilever is the sole shareholder of Ben & Jerry’s, and it controls the company’s economic and operational decisions. But Ben & Jerry’s also has a separate Board of Directors that is not controlled by Unilever. This board elects its own members, and exists in perpetuity. It acts as a watchdog and has the legal authority to block proposals that lessen product quality or impede the social mission. As sales increase, investment in the social mission must also increase.

Today there are Ben & Jerry’s stores in 35 countries and annual sales now are now around $500 million, up from about $200 million when the company was sold. You can find Ben & Jerry’s in Belfast, Istanbul, and Mexico City; Ben & Jerry’s is planning for the day when more of its ice cream will be sold in other countries than in America.

The early chapters of “Ice Cream Social” describe the creation of Ben & Jerry’s social mission, and the mistakes and mismanagement that ultimately cost the co-founders their company. The last three chapters detail what happened after the love boat tanked.

According to the book, “the three-part mission went on a long detour after Ben & Jerry’s was sold.” An aggressive cost-cutting manager was assigned to boost profits by cutting costs.  The social mission was left gasping for air.

In 2008, the independent board started holding Unilever’s feet to the fire, forcing them to take their social mission seriously as part of the sale agreements. The board parried and thrusted with Unilever’s samurai American executives, even preparing a lawsuit and public relations campaign deriding the parent company. They almost went through with it, too.

In 2010, there was a truce, and the three-part mission was salvaged. “A talented CEO and profits from international expansion made it easy to set audacious goals,” Edmondson writes. While not perfect, the company managed to re-commit to “their struggle to change the world while also making great ice cream” at a profit.

By the end of 2013, all of the ingredients used in Ben & Jerry’s will be fairly traded and free of GMOs.  With Furman at the helm, the board is ensuring that the company’s ingredients come from sustainable agriculture, that a transparent social audit is published every year, and that “linked prosperity” isn’t a household name for a failed social compact.

“I have spent half my life connected to Ben & Jerry’s,” writes Furman in the book’s epilogue. “The talks I had with Brad were not easy for me. They brought back a lot of the old, hard emotions of the personal collective loss and failure we all went through as we lost control of the company and struggled for years afterward.”

Yes. Jeff "The Ampersand" Furman sang. And it was pure music to Edmondson's ears. This is an intelligent read that also will touch the hearts of anyone who fell in love with Ben & Jerry's ice cream – and their ethos.

– Franklin Crawford, writer, administrator, tinytowntimes.com

Note: The above article originally appeared in the Tompkins Weekly. We re-print it here much amended and thank the newspaper for allowing us to do so.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 August 2013 11:24  

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