The Self-Made Man: Ben and Jerry
I’m one of those weirdos who can eat ice cream all year, no matter how cold it gets outside, so it’s surprising that I haven’t talked about Ben and Jerry’s as a model of entrepreneurship. Not only did they start a business that became a hugely successful brand, they helped redefine what the corporate conscience was for my generation. And, most importantly of all, Americone Dream is delicious.
Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, aka Ben and Jerry, were born four days apart in the same Brooklyn hospital in 1951, but didn’t meet until they were in seventh grade, at which point they were the overweight kids for whom dodgeball held many terrors. They remained friends throughout high school, and while they attended separate colleges (it was either that or Vietnam), they eventually settled in Saratoga Springs, New York and decided to go into business together. As a callback to their shared fat kid experience, they decided on food, and made the more specific choice of ice cream because of the low start-up costs.??And I do mean low; they took a correspondence course in ice cream making from The Pennsylvania State University for $5, and opened their first ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, which cost them about $12,000. That amount of money won’t even get people to say hello to you in most other industries.
The two friends split up the labor with Jerry making the ice cream and Ben doing everything else, including coming up with all the goofy flavors so many of us enjoy today. They also advertised through civic engagement, hosting free outdoor movie nights and starting up a foundation that gave money to community projects and non-profit organizations in the area. They also brought in a local nightclub entrepreneur to take over the company’s financials; while they felt very strongly about serving the community more than just ice cream, they didn’t want to go broke in the process.
As it was, the company was threatened in 1984 by Pillsbury, owners of Haagen-Dazs, who tried to stop Ben & Jerry outlets from opening near theirs and put pressure on suppliers who sold to both companies. Ben and Jerry responded to their poor sportsmanship by suing them, and by launching an attack campaign called “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”, and Pillsbury eventually backed off. The lesson there, of course, was that Ben and Jerry’s competitors were threatened by their success, and didn’t share their do-gooder ethics.
The company continued growing throughout the 1990s and received numerous commendations for their “values-driven” approach to doing business, which includes dealing fairly with foreign and domestic suppliers (even during market crunches), and treating their employees with respect, offering high wages, good benefits, paid time off for volunteer work, and other perks.
Ben & Jerry don’t run the company anymore—they sold it to Unilever back in 2000—but they still have a hand on the tiller, so to speak. They weren’t CEOs from the womb like a lot of the entrepreneurs we’ve covered here, but they’ve certainly been successful, and that’s due to their hard work and diligence. More importantly, they didn’t let their success dictate their values.
Here’s an interview they did with Greenopolis TV, in which they talk about what their goals for the company in 2013 and beyond.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.