In 1984, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. (#74), of Waterbury, Vt., was about to graduate from privately owned purveyor of upscale ice cream to publicly held manufacturing company. In what should have been his moment of glory, however, founding partner Ben Cohen was ready to cash in his chocolate chips and go find another career.
"We had grown so fast that I had become more of an administrator than an ice cream man," says Cohen, who had once taught pottery-making no emotionally disturbed children. "That was something I'd never wanted to be. Before selling my share of the business, though, I asked myself, OK, what don't you like about it? What is it about 'traditional business' that turns you off? And that's when I decided that if I could run Ben & Jerry's as a 'socially responsible' company, I could stay in the business and feel good about it."
Because he felt strongly that "the community should prosper right along with the company," Cohen engineered an equity offering pitched first to Vermonters and, a year later, to fellow ice cream fanatics nationwide, $500,000 from the $5.1-million offering helped start a nonprofit foundation that, bolstered by 15% of Ben & Jerry's pretax profits, supports local causes. Internally, Cohen also instituted a five-to-one salary-ratio cap, whereby the lowliest line employee cannot make any less than 20% of what top management makes (currently $50,000).
These moves haven't slowed the company's growth. Sales are $9.5 million, up 1.445% over five years. Still, the boss insists that his scoop-in-hand style of management has survived this rapid expansion.
"I may rely on my [seven-man] management team more for day-to-day decisions," says Cohen, "but we've never had an autocratic environment. Board meetings convene at my house, where we play round-robin Ping-Pong -- I tend to get excited sometimes, and playing helps calm me down. Also, I bought an exercise bike for my living room, so the first guy there gets to pedal through the agenda. That can be an important consideration in our line of work."
Competitors inferring that they're dealing with a bunch of frosted flakes here might check with the folks at Pillsbury Co. Last year, seeking to protect its Haagen-Dazs's market share, Pillsbury allegedly tried to block distribution of Ben & Jerry's products to certain East Coast distributors. Ben & Jerry's countered with bumper stickers ("What's the Doughboy Afraid of?"), billboards, and airplane banners. Pillsbury eventually abandoned the blockade, but not before Ben & Jerry's had earned a generous scoop of free publicity for its guerrilla tactics. Says Cohen, "They tried to fight us in court, but we fought them in the public's mind instead. And that's always been our kind of turf."