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The Great Leaders Series: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade

Lifelong friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took both sustainable profit and social activism into consideration when starting their ice cream business.
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As childhood friends from Long Island, N.Y., Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield bonded over a love of food. In 1977, the twosome decided to take a correspondence course in ice cream-making. After some consideration, the pair made a $12,000 investment in 1978 and opened their first ice cream shop – called Ben & Jerry's Homemade – in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt.  Now, they are the namesakes for a global ice cream empire, and Ben & Jerry's is known for mixing indulgent desserts with social activism.

After the pair turned a profit in their first year of business, on May 5, 1979, they marked their anniversary by hosting the first-ever "Free Cone Day" – a tradition that has since become an annual tradition at their "scoop shops" around the world. By 1980, the company had expanded to a former spool-and-bobbin mill in the center of Burlington, where they began packing their famed ice cream into pints. Selling pints to restaurants and individuals proved integral to getting the company through the winter seasons. Soon after, in 1981, the pair opened their first franchise, in the nearby Vermont town of Shelburne.

Another landmark year, 1983, marked the creation – with the help of scores of fervent fans – of the "world's largest ice cream sundae" in St. Albans, Vt., which weighed in at 27,102 pounds, but also the opening of their first out-of-state franchise, in Maine. Independent ice cream distributors also began selling Ben & Jerry's pints in Boston.

Just six years after opening, in 1984, Ben & Jerry's had annual sales exceeding $4 million. The pair also discovered a little-known clause about Vermont's stocks and brokering regulations, and established a Vermont-only public stock offering to raise money for a new manufacturing facility. At this time, ice cream giant Häagan-Dazs attempted to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry's in Boston, an act that prompted the ice cream aficionados to file a suit against Häagan-Dazs' parent company, Pillsbury. The situation sparked one of Ben & Jerry's most famous advertising campaigns: "What's the Dough Boy Afraid Of?"

In 1985, Ben & Jerry began building their first ice cream manufacturing plant, in Waterbury, Vt., and pint distribution branched out of New England. The Ben & Jerry's Foundation was established that same year, which came with the promise of a gift from Ben & Jerry themselves to fund community-oriented projects – the gift is funded with 7.5 percent of the company's annual pre-tax profits.

The plant opened in Waterbury in 1986, and from the start offered free tours to the public. The next year, the company began working on its environmental action, and started supplying excess ice cream waste to a pig farm in nearby Stowe, Vt., in an effort to avoid exceeding Waterbury's wastewater discharge limits. The famed "Cherry Garcia" flavor, named for Grateful Dead rocker Jerry Garcia, was also introduced in 1987.

In 1988, in addition to establishing a new non-profit called "1% For Peace," which set a goal to redirect one percent of the national defense budget to fund peace-promoting activities and projects, Ben & Jerry were also named the "United States Small Business Persons of the Year,"' an honor awarded by President Ronald Reagan. That same year, the company initiated their three-fold mission statement, including a sustainable corporate concept that is upheld even today: Profit marks just one-third of the company's undertaking.

The company's social mission proclaims that the company will operate "in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally." Its economic mission promises to operate on a "sustainable financial basis of profitable growth, in such a way that will increase value for their stakeholders, and expand opportunities for development, and career growth for employees."

By 1994, Ben & Jerry's ice cream was being distributed in Russia and the United Kingdom. The company also began the pursuit of finding a new Chief Executive Officer when Ben stepped down in 1995, by holding a national contest entitled, 'YO! I'm Your New CEO!' The contest invited applicants to write a 100-word application explaining why they would be perfect for the CEO position. Of the 22,000 applicants, first-prize winner Robert Holland became CEO by submitting a poem that decidedly captured the spirit of the contest, and the second-prize winner received a lifetime supply of ice cream. 

1998 marked a re-launch of the company's pint line – a re-designed, modern look, coupled with eco-friendly paperboard – and Ben & Jerry's scoop shops included environmentally-sound materials, such as recycled tiles and countertops made from recycled quarry waste. In the year 2000, Ben & Jerry's announced that the company was being sold to Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch corporation and multinational consumer products firm, for the price of $326 million. Under parent company Unilever, Ben & Jerry's is able to expand their global reach, while maintaining their social mission and brand integrity.

Since 2003 – when the company celebrated its 25th anniversary – Ben and Jerry have continued their social activism pledge by working on a sustainable Caring Dairy initiative, which aids the needs of farmers and their cows. The company has converted all of their farms to operating on green energy, and Ben & Jerry's set into motion the trend of using cooperatively-run farmer associations and Fair Trade-certified ingredients for their products.

Today, Ben & Jerry's continues doing its part on behalf of social and environmental activism, and the company has been particularly focused on bringing awareness to the issues of Global Warming. The company now boasts locations in nearly 30 countries worldwide, and their flavor list has grown to more than 40, including low-fat, sorbet, and frozen yogurt varieties. As a brand, it's consistently strong with niche consumers who identify with a social mission – and appreciate a bit of good humor with their pint. Ben & Jerry's is known for creating fun, celebrity-influenced names – more recent additions include an homage to TV personality Steven Colbert, called "Americone Dream." They also renamed their classic butter pecan flavor to "Yes Pecan!" in reference to Barack Obama's Election Day win.

On his involvement with the company, and the success of Ben & Jerry's three-part mission statement, Jerry Greenfield has said, "We measured our success not just by how much money we made, but by how much we contributed to the community. It was a two-part bottom line."

More of the Greatest Leaders

Last updated: Feb 18, 2010




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