Profile of a Successful Company: Ben and Jerry’s

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On August 14, 2012

Ask most people to paint you a picture of what a successful person looks like and you’re likely to end up with someone that looks like they just stepped off the campus at Harvard Business School. What you probably won’t get is a couple of self-avowed “Vermont hippies” (originally from New York).

Looks, as we’ve all been told, can be deceiving. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield both had an interest in the food industry, but were debating whether they should pursue bagels or ice cream. After deciding that the equipment necessary to produce bagels was too expensive, they opted for ice cream. That’s not exactly the stuff of which business legends are made—but what followed was.

Ben and Jerry began to learn about the business—enrolling in an ice cream making correspondence course through Penn State University. The course—which cost them a grand total of $5—confirmed to them that they were on the right track, so in 1978 they borrowed $4,000 and chipped in $8,000 of their own money to begin Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in an old, abandoned gas station.

By the end of 1984 Ben & Jerry’s sales exceeded $4 million and by 1999 grew to $237 million. And in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s and their franchises were purchased by Unilever for $326 million. Not too bad for a couple of Vermont hippies!

What set Ben & Jerry’s apart was not just that they made unusual (and unusually good) ice cream. There were a lot of companies (many much bigger) that did that. But Ben & Jerry’s also lived by some unusual principles. Here’s a quick look at three things that set them apart from the competition.

#1: Behave Responsibly
Jerry Greenfield says, “Ben and I built Ben & Jerry’s on the idea that business has a responsibility to the community and environment… If you open up the mind, the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless. It’s a process of innovation… If we were going to have a business we were going to have one that was consistent with our values… 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.”

Treat Your Workers Well
Cohen and Greenfield claimed, “We thought, why don’t we get together and do something fun and be our own bosses?  Since we like to eat we should do something with food. We wanted our workers to work hard, but do it in an environment that was fun. No one wants to dread going to work. Our employees are what makes Ben & Jerry’s successful.” Part of that environment includes granting awards of up to $500 to employees who have an idea on how to make work more fun.

Challenge the Big Guys
Cohen and Greenfield considered themselves “just a couple of hippies trying to avoid becoming simply another big company” because they disliked the negative social and environmental impact of big business. But that didn’t stop big business from coming after them.

In 1984, industry giant Pillsbury—the company behind Haagen-Dazs—attempted to shut down the hippie upstarts. Pillsbury gave Ben & Jerry’s distributors in Boston an ultimatum: sell Haagen-Dazs or sell Ben & Jerry’s, but not both. Rather than cave in, Ben & Jerry’s launched a counter-campaign in which they asked: What’s the doughboy afraid of?”

According to Cohen and Greenfield, “We rallied people around our cause and it worked. We started getting a hundred calls a night (most between the hours of midnight and 3 am) helping two Vermont hippies fight the giant Pillsbury Corporation.” The rest, as they say, is history.

In light of all this, I have two questions for you. What impresses you most about the Ben & Jerry’s success story? And , what’s your favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor?