April 3, 2013

‘Jerry’ of Ice Cream Fame Comes to Cornell

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Speaking at Cornell Wednesday, Jerry Greenfield, co founder of Ben & Jerry’s, said the ice cream company has redefined business as a “combination of organized human interest and money.”

Greenfield and Ben Cohen — the other co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s — first met in seventh grade gym class, where they became friends. The two remained friends through high school and college, even though the two went separate ways; Greenfield studied biology at Oberlin College while Cohen had brief stints at several different colleges.

After college, Ben had a few odd jobs — including driving taxis and mopping at Friendly’s — while Jerry was rejected from several medical schools.

Without career paths, the two friends decided to go into business together, Greenfield said.

“We were failing in everything that we were trying to do,” Greenfield said. “We tried to get together to do something fun and be our own bosses. We like to eat, so we thought we would do something about food. We picked ice cream, even though we didn’t know anything about it.”

Strapped for cash, the two split a five-dollar correspondence course at Penn State and decided to open up their first ice cream shop after acing the course. Greenfield said they had no previous experience or knowledge about setting up a business.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Greenfield said.

The two opened up their first ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vt., in 1978, mostly with money that they raised independently, according to Greenfield.

The two continued to meet challenges during the first few years of business. Vermont’s harsh winters forced them to reduce prices and drive around to grocery stores and restaurants, selling ice cream in the back of Cohen’s car, which is how they “tumbled into the manufacturing and distribution business,” Greenfield said.

The two caught a break when Pillsbury agreed to start distributing their ice cream. However, Pillsbury decided to drop Ben & Jerry’s after the its biggest supplier, Haagen Dazs, put pressure on them to sell their products exclusively, according to Greenfield

After Greenfield and Cohen attracted media attention with their “What’s the Dough Boy Afraid Of?” campaign — a response to Pillsbury’s attempts to limit the distribution of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — Pillsbury backed down, and continued to sell Ben & Jerry’s as well.

“We’re not ice cream guys anymore; we [were] becoming businessmen,” Greenfield said.  “It wasn’t exactly our idea of a good time. … We felt our business was becoming another cog in the economic machine.”

This drove them to want to sell their business. However, after advice from a friend, Greenfield and Cohen decided to hold on to their company and change the way they ran their business.

Instead of turning to individual investors for funds, Cohen and Greenfield decided to offer public stock to Vermont residents for $126 a share, which ran contrary to what was suggested by their business advisors. They raised $750,000, and one out of every hundred families in Vermont owned a share in the company, Greenfield said. They even expanded this offer nationally and opened the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which receives 7.5 percent of the company’s pre-tax profits, the highest percentage of any publicly owned company.

Aside from his own history, Greenfield spoke about the business world in general. He said businesses are some of the most dominant institutions in our society, and that as a result of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, there are no limits to how much corporations can contribute to political campaigns and influence legislation and the media.

“If business is the most powerful force in society, why is business not addressing the biggest issues in society?” Greenfield asked.

In order to address this issue, Greenfield said that Ben & Jerry’s has redefined how they measure success as a company. Instead of measuring success by the amount of money the company makes,  Greenfield and Cohen added an additional component: how the company is able to improve the quality of life of the people in the places that they operate.

Greenfield said the company tries to integrate both social and environmental concerns into the business activities of Ben & Jerry’s. For example, the company uses local and 100-percent fair trade ingredients, and they have 14 partner shops that are owned and operated by non-profit social service agencies that work with at risk youth. According to Greenfield, by the end of the year, Ben & Jerry’s will be 100-percent free of genetically modified organisms.

“There is a spiritual aspect to business … Just because the idea that the good that you do comes back to you is written in the Bible, and not in some business expert, doesn’t mean that it is any less valid,” Greenfield said.  “As we help others, we can’t help but be helped in return. For businesses and people, it’s all exactly the same.”

Original Author: Margaret Yoder