Both born in Brooklyn, New York, Bennett Cohen (born 1951) and Jerry Greenfield (born 1951) were lifelong friends who would go on to establish one of the most successful American ice cream brands of all time-Ben & Jerry's Homemade.
Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield established Ben & Jerry's Homemade, a popular American ice cream brand. Yet Ben & Jerry's Homemade evolved into more than just a company producing such premium offerings as Holy Cannoli! and New York Super Fudge Chunk-its founders who had inadvertently become business moguls realized they were indeed swimming in shark-infested waters. Cohen and Greenfield's struggle to adapt their own Sixties-era personal values-the ideas of tolerance, of giving back to the community, and respect for the individual-has not been an easy one at times for the reluctant executives, but one that has consistently landed their company on lists of the most employee-friendly work-places in the United States.
The Ben & Jerry's Homemade ice cream empire that gained a national cult following during the 1980s had its origins in a suburban New York junior high school. The families of Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were each refugees from Brooklyn. The boys met in the gym class at their Merrick, Long Island, school in the early 1960s. It was a friendship, both would later joke, based on their mutual status as misfits-the overweight kids who were forced to run track. They remained friends though high school and both graduated from Merrick's Calhoun High in the late 1960s.
Cohen then enrolled in Colgate University, but uninspired by college life, he dropped out in his sophomore year. However, during his high school years, Cohen had driven an ice-cream truck in the suburban idylls of Long Island, and it was a mission he now happily returned to since he needed work. He began taking unusual college courses that reflected his interests-pottery and jewelry-making, for instance, and over the next few years held a series of equally unusual jobs. These included a stint in the emergency room of New York City's notorious Bellevue Hospital and another as a Pinkerton guard at the Saratoga Raceway.
Greenfield had spent his college years in Ohio, and the pair lost contact for a while. A National Merit Scholar in high school, Greenfield had hoped to become a doctor. He studied pre-med at Oberlin College but was rejected when he applied to medical school. He moved back to New York City and took a job as a lab technician, grinding up cow hearts inside test tubes in a research facility. At that time, he shared an apartment with Cohen on East 10th Street. Greenfield again applied to medical school but was rejected again. From 1974 to 1976 he lived in North Carolina with his future wife, Elizabeth, and upon his return found Ben in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he worked as an art therapist at a center for emotionally disturbed children. Reviving an old dream of beginning their own food enterprise together, the duo signed up for a correspondence course in ice-cream-making from Pennsylvania State University.
Ben and Jerry received "A"s in the $5 course (it was an open-book exam), and forged ahead with their plan to open their own ice-cream parlor. Since Saratoga Springs already had one, they packed up and moved to an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, a college town they both liked. They used their savings-a combined $8,000-and borrowed another $4,000 to open "Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop" in May of 1978. It was an immediate success and soon a favorite spot in Burlington. Greenfield made most of the ice cream, while Cohen handled all the other aspects of the operation. From the start, they began developing their own wild flavors-inspired by the ice cream, cookie, and candy concoctions Cohen used to mix up as a kid-and gained a cult following that soon began to spread outside Burlington.
Ben and Jerry's ice-cream enterprise became known for its instigation of fun, community-oriented projects. A free outdoor movie night was one such event, along with giving away free cones on the anniversary of their store's opening. Though their civic spirit was in the right place, Cohen and Greenfield did not quite grasp the profit-and-loss part of running a business. They eventually hired a successful Burlington nightclub entrepreneur, Fred "Chico" Lager, to take control of the books, deal with suppliers, and forge ahead with expansion plans.
By 1980, Cohen and Greenfield had found an old spool and bobbin mill to rent as a home for their larger-scale ice cream production and packing operations. A distributorship route was set up to deliver to grocery and small family-owned specialty stores in the region. Cohen became the designated delivery person and carted the frozen goods in the back of his Volkswagen station wagon. In 1981, the cult following surrounding their exquisitely rich, addictive flavors-such as Heath Bar Crunch and Dastardly Mash-achieved mainstream approval when Time began a cover story on ice cream with an opening sentence stating that Ben & Jerry's was the best in the world.
Over the next few years, the Ben & Jerry's Homemade company began opening franchises elsewhere in New England, and gained a wider distribution in stores. But the pressures of running what had become an extremely profitable, ever-expanding ice-cream empire were taking their toll on the founders, who were anything but profit-oriented, executive types. For a time, Greenfield left the day-to-day business, moving to Arizona with Elizabeth as she pursued a graduate degree. He returned in 1985, not long after Cohen had put the company on the market-he was also uncomfortable with the changes that running a successful business had forced upon his beliefs-but then changed his mind and decided to keep it.
That year marked a turning point for Cohen and Greenfield. With a new sense of mission, they vowed to adapt their business to suit their philosophies-rather than letting their business concerns dictate their ideology. This was partially accomplished by the establishment of the Ben & Jerry Foundation, which received 7.5 percent of the ice cream company's pre-tax profits and then donated them to the community through various charitable organizations. Long known as friendly, concerned bosses, the duo tried to enshrine such attitudes into company policy. To work at a Ben & Jerry's outlet or plant was to become part of a team, where each individual was valued. Respect for employees took a far greater precedence than any corporate or profit oriented concerns.
Such a liberal spirit, combined with the overwhelming success of the actual Ben & Jerry product, earned the company an enemy-food giant Pillsbury, which owned the Haagen-Dazs premium ice cream brand. Haagen-Dazs had achieved success in many markets, but its primary competition was the Ben & Jerry brand. Pillsbury attempted, via legal channels, to stop Ben & Jerry ice cream outlets from opening near theirs, and also forced Ben & Jerry's to file suit against them when Pillsbury put pressure on outside suppliers who sold to both companies. Reflecting upon their own anti-corporate spirit, Ben & Jerry's launched a media offensive centered around the slogan. "What's the Doughboy Afraid Of?," in reference to the Pillsbury's cuddly emblem.
By 1986, Cohen and Greenfield's business was reporting sales of $20 million annually. New flavors attracted more Ben & Jerry devotees every year, and some of the additions to the roster were suggestions sent in to the company. Cherry Garcia, for example, was a fruity homage to the Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia that had come from two followers of the band; New York Super Fudge Chunk had been the idea of a chocaholic New York writer. Meanwhile, the founders continued to concentrate much of their energies on setting an example of giving back to the community-in this case, the global community. For some ingredients-cashews from Brazil, blueberries from Maine-the company began a policy of purchasing from indigenous peoples and paying a fair rate. Closer to home, a "Partnershop" with a Harlem shelter for homeless men opened in 1992; the ice cream shop is staffed by residents and the shelter receives 75 percent of the store's profits.
Another example of such commitment to their ideals was the Ben & Jerry Foundation's "1 percent for Peace" drive. This was a non-profit organization that actively worked to redirect one percent of the United States military budget to life-improving-not life-taking-goals. Their Peace Pops, introduced that same year, served as a marketing tool for the foundation, providing information on the 1 percent for Peace campaign and directing the interested toward action. A voter registration drive and taking on the sponsorship for the failing counterculture staple, Rhode Island's Newport Jazz Festival, were other typical Ben & Jerry corporate activities during this era.
In 1988, Cohen and Greenfield received the Corporate Giving Award from the Council on Economic Priorities for their Ben & Jerry Foundation. That same year, the iconoclastic pair was named Small Business Leaders of the Year by President Ronald Reagan and attended an award ceremony at the White House. Over the next few years, as their business suffered the ups and downs of market demand-a diet-conscious public had begun to eschew premium ice cream for lowfat versions or frozen yogurt-Ben & Jerry's Homemade continued to back their philosophies with concrete actions. In one 1991 episode derided by the mainstream business periodical Fortune, they paid above-market prices to their local milk suppliers after cutbacks in a federal dairy-subsidy program caused market prices to drop severely. This had brought some hardship to many small dairy farmers-Vermont's among them-but instead of profiting from the decline, Ben & Jerry's Homemade made a decision to show explicit support for small, people-oriented businesses like their own.
In 1992 Ben & Jerry's Homemade was awarded the Optimas "Quality of Life" Award from Personnel Journal for growing into a company that had created an unusually nurturing workplace. High wages and excellent benefits consistently landed the company on lists of the best companies in America at which to work. At the production plant and offices, workers are subject to an unusual corporate entity initiated by Greenfield known as the "Joy Gang." This group is made up of employees whose mission is to inject a bit of zaniness into the workday on a random basis through such actions as prizes or a surprise party for the late shift at the plant.
Ben & Jerry's 700 employees also enjoy on-site daycare, a health club, and a generous profit-sharing plan. Since 1989, the company also offers benefits to domestic partners and management is encouraged to dress as casual as plant employees. On one occasion, a slowdown dictated a three-month hiatus for one shift at the plant; instead of laying off the workers, Ben & Jerry's kept them on the payroll to do odd jobs, as well as community service ventures such as painting the town's fire hydrants and winterizing the homes of senior citizens. It is also policy to allow employees paid time off to do volunteer work, and perhaps best of all, each is allowed to take home three free pints a day of the company product.
Cohen and Greenfield's innovations in what they call "values-led" capitalism has also earned them praise for their early efforts at recycling at their facilities, a mission also encouraged on their packaging. Their idea of "caring capitalism," Greenfield explained in an interview with USA Today's Ellen Neuborne, means a plan "where you consider effects on the community alongside products and profits." The pair has penned a book on this theme-Ben & Jerry's Double Dip: Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too, published in 1997.
Cohen resigned as chief executive officer (CEO) in June of 1994, but remains chair of the board and invents new ice cream flavors. To replace him, Ben & Jerry's launched a well-publicized campaign called "Yo! I Want to be CEO!" The interested were invited to send a postcard telling why they would make an ideal executive leader of Ben & Jerry's Homemade. They eventually settled on a rather traditional corporate chief discovered through an executive-search firm.
Greenfield remains vice-chair of the board and director of mobile promotions. He and Cohen own 42 percent of the Ben & Jerry voting stock and devote much of their time to an organization called Businesses for Social Responsibility, of which Cohen is a founding member. "It's ironic that when we started, [naysayers] said all our social concerns would be our undoing," Greenfield told in USA Today's Neuborne. "Now everyone agrees it works, and we made the business work. Now they say it's just a way to hype ice cream. It's a journey."
Further Reading on Ben & Jerry
Cohen, Ben, and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's Double Dip: Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too, Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Lager, Fred, Ben & Jerry's, the Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, Crown, 1994.
Newsmakers, 1991 Cumulation, Gale, 1991.
Business Week, July 15, 1996, pp. 70-71.
Fortune, June 3, 1991, pp. 247-248.
Personnel Journal, November 1992.
USA Today, April 30, 1996, p. 4B.