At a recent, vintage Ben & Jerry's press conference, Ben Cohen announced he was stepping down as CEO of the ice cream company he and Jerry Greenfield founded some 15 years ago.
For the occasion, Cohen and Greenfield wore Uncle Sam-style top hats fashioned from ice cream containers and held up a poster bearing their pictures and the slogan, "We want you to be our CEO." All candidates were invited to enter a 100-word essay contest. The media lapped it up as eagerly as they would a pint of the company's super-premium ice cream, and the story was in all the papers the next day.
Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. has outgrown Cohen and Greenfield, but then, neither one ever imagined that the crepe and ice cream scoop shop they opened in an abandoned Burlington, Vt., gas station would ever grow to its current size, with $140 million in sales.
As it turned out, their flavorful ice cream, rich in butterfat and loaded with large chunks of Oreos, Heath Bars and other goodies, seduced American taste buds. A nation of dieters saved room for dessert.
Along with great taste came savvy marketing. Cohen and Greenfield have cultivated a reputation as a couple of successful, hippie-ish entrepreneurs who use profits for causes such as saving the rain forests and opposing nuclear power. In the 1980s, most of the business news was dominated by doings on Wall Street and talk of yuppies and greed, so it was refreshing to find "real guys" in Vermont producing ice cream and trying to do something "socially responsible" with the profits. Indeed, Cohen and Greenfield learned to milk favorable publicity from the media as well as a Vermont dairy farmer strokes a cow.
Now comes an engaging, behind-the-scenes look at the company and its founders from Fred Lager, the company's CEO for much of the 1980s. Cohen brought Lager on board so he could focus on marketing, but took over the job again when Lager retired in 1990; Greenfield, meanwhile, withdrew from full-time duty in the early 1980s but continued to work on special assignments.
In "Ben & Jerry's: The Inside Scoop," Lager traces the friendship of Cohen and Greenfield back to the seventh grade, briefly sketches their formative years on Long Island--odd jobs in Ben's case, rejection from medical school in Jerry's--and picks up with the two deciding to go into business together.
After an abortive summer of trying to open an ice cream shop in Saratoga, N.Y., the duo moved to Burlington. There, at least, the cold weather ensured that they would have little competition. In a renovated gas station, they installed a secondhand rock salt and ice freezer and began making ice cream.
Ben's sinus problems meant he had trouble distinguishing flavor, a medical condition that would have profound implications for their future. To compensate, Jerry would double the recommended amount of ingredients and add lots of chunks with the idea of creating a "mouth feel" that Ben could appreciate. They also upped the butterfat content by reducing the amount of air that got whipped into the ice cream. Thus Oreo Mint, Heath Bar Crunch and other classic brands were born (for some reason, other flavors like Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip and Honey Apple Raisin Oreo never made it into commercial production).
The scoop shop was popular, and demand for the ice cream was high, but profits were unpredictable because it was hard to prevent scoopers from over-scooping. The pair tried selling 2 1/2-gallon tubs to restaurants, but that wasn't getting them far either. Ben, who at the time was driving the delivery truck to restaurants, hit upon the idea of packaging the ice cream into pints that he would sell to mom-and-pop grocery stores along the way.
From these modest beginnings, the business grew. Much of the tale is classic entrepreneurial stuff--long hours, making do with limited resources--but Lager keeps the narrative moving along briskly. He describes the major milestones: the move to a bigger facility in Waterbury, Vt.; expansion into metropolitan area supermarkets; the struggle against Pillsbury's Haagen-Dazs brand as well as Frusen Gladje and Steve's; the in-state initial public stock offering and the decision to contribute profits to social causes.
Along the way, Lager manages to convey the founders' wry sense of humor: "Jerry and Ben . . . debated whether their customers would prefer fewer but larger-sized chunks, or a larger number of smaller-sized pieces. 'I argued that if the chunks were too large, you might not get a chunk in every bite,' says Jerry. Ben was willing to take that risk, convinced that it would be more than offset by the euphoria of finding a really huge chunk in the next spoonful."
Getting the right number of chunks into each pint was indeed an obsession of Ben's. At one point he had pints sent through an airport X-ray machine and a hospital's MRI scanner to see if the chunk count could be accurately tested. Lager also recounts how Ben once asked for 144 variations on a product, with different chunk sizes and proportion of ingredients, so he could do a taste test. "Are you really going to eat all of these?" Lager asked incredulously. "No, " Ben replied, "I'm going to start eating them. Find out which ones I like, and then eat some more in that direction."
For all the humor and the laid-back image, though, Ben & Jerry's was, as one observer noted, "a sweatshop in a pastoral setting." The company's meteoric growth kept employees running. For all his savvy marketing and stroking of the media, Cohen was less smooth when it came to getting along with his own employees.
Lager himself was among those frustrated with Cohen. He argued against the company's seven-to-one pay scale ratio, whereby the company's top earner could only earn seven times what the lowest-paid person made. The ratio made it impossible to attract top talent for the executive positions. Ultimately, Ben & Jerry's had to drop the policy, but not until after Lager had left.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield fought hard against big business, and in some ways became victims of their own success. Fred Lager pays them a worthy tribute in this fine book.