It wasn’t the sweetest deal, at first. When Unilever offered to purchase Ben & Jerry’s for $326 million in April 2000, founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had every reason to be apprehensive. Their Vermont-based company wasn’t exactly the “typical” corporation, after all.
For one, they take their mission (“to make the world a better place”) seriously. They use cage-free eggs to support the humane treatment of hens, encourage farmers to use sustainable means to raise dairy cows, and support 100% clean energy by 2050. Prior to the Unilever takeover, Cohen told an interviewer that he’d prefer “to remain independent” while still giving shareholders an adequate return on their investment.
Besides, Unilever wasn’t Ben and Jerry’s only buyer. Dreyer’s, a California-based ice cream company, also expressed interest, bidding $35 to $38 per share as the sale went on. They even offered a couple of board seats, plus 25 percent ownership of the merged companies, to sweeten the deal.
Unilever, on the other hand, offered autonomy. If the conglomerate were to buy out the business responsible for such brilliantly-named flavors as “Cherry Garcia” and “Imagine Whirled Peace,” they had to abide by a few conditions. These included the donation of $5 million to be invested in low-income communities, the donation of 7.5 percent of Ben & Jerry’s pretax profit to charity, and the purchase of milk at above-market prices from Vermont’s farmers.
Needless to say, Unilever agreed to these conditions, and Ben & Jerry’s went to them.
In exchange, Cohen and Greenfield turned over the CEO position to Unilever executive Yves Couette. The two founders still exercise some control through an independent board of directors, which is tasked with protecting their company’s brand integrity. As for Ben & Jerry’s former CEO, Perry Odak, he was handed the reins to the financial and operational management of the newly-combined company.
Being an experienced businessman, Couette realized that he needed to honor the “autonomy” portion of the acquisition terms. At the same time, he saw a need to introduce best practices from his parent company, seeing as Ben & Jerry’s stock dropped by 50 percent within the 1993-1999 period.
Couette began by going against one of Ben & Jerry’s unwritten rules: Never fire an employee unless absolutely necessary. He closed down one distribution center and one production plant, leaving the workers on these two sites jobless. He also laid off salespeople from headquarters, and opened positions in the company for Unilever’s international talent pool. Naturally, these moves drew the ire of the remaining employees.
However, Couette stood his ground, and said that these sacrifices were necessary for Ben & Jerry’s continued success. It’s hard to say to what extent this is true, but at any rate, the Vermont-based ice cream company seems to be prospering under the new management—and not just profits-wise.
Since the acquisition, Ben & Jerry’s continued to pursue the socio-civic initiatives that set it apart from competitors. In 2005, for instance, the company made the world’s largest Baked Alaska to protest the drilling of the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They also pulled a 2009 April Fool’s Joke—in the form of the CyClone Dairy—to increase awareness of food made from cloned animals.
Even after Jostein Solheim took over as CEO in 2010, the aforementioned initiatives didn’t slow down. In fact, if anything, they further intensified: The company went so far as to throw its weight behind GMO-labeling laws, even though Unilever itself was openly against those laws. Of course, for the sake of PR, Unilever didn’t openly dissuade Ben & Jerry’s from this particular venture.
The founders aren’t resting on their laurels, either. In October 2012, Cohen launched the Stamp Stampede campaign, which advocates the stamping of political messages on paper bills to discourage bribery. As of this writing, the campaign is ongoing, and Cohen insists that it’s a practice allowed under U.S. law.
Not everything was smooth-sailing for Ben & Jerry’s, though. The company came under fire more than once for being too cheeky with naming their ice cream flavors. Black and Tan, for example, has negative connotations in Ireland, while Schweddy Balls was naughty enough for supermarkets to refuse to have anything to do with it. They also had to remove fortune cookie bits in the “Taste the Lin-sanity” flavor”, due to the racist implications. More recently, there was the protest by 120 activists for the improvement of working conditions for migrant laborers on Ben & Jerry’s dairy farms.
Apart from these hiccups, though, Ben & Jerry’s seems to have a sincere support for certain political causes. To celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage, the company created a new flavor called “I Dough, I Dough”. Previously, they renamed popular flavors like “Chubby Hubby” and “Oh! My! Apple Pie!” to “Hubby Hubby” and “Apple-y Ever After”, respectively. And that’s to say nothing of their relationship with Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Sanders is outspoken on a number of socially positive issues (bailing out the middle class, reforming our prison systems, ending the war on drugs, and on and on), and both Ben and Jerry have been vocal about supporting his platform. It’s important to note that Ben and Jerry—not the company, but the human beings—are the ones doing the campaigning; Sanders is sticking to his guns on corporate donations.
So. Where do consumers fit into all this? The story of Ben & Jerry’s drives home the fact that we’re all responsible for “voting with our wallets” when it comes to choosing responsible companies to give our business to. Take a look around your hometown. There are some great companies out there that stress the importance of giving back to the community. Foster Fuels, for example, speaks often about giving to local charities, while Playworld is committed to environmentally friendly products and business practices.
Balancing shareholders’ interests with the public good is a difficult dance, to be sure. On the one hand, Ben and Jerry’s is a business that needs to do whatever it takes to stay afloat financially. On the other hand, compared to most profit-based ventures, it’s miles ahead in terms of initiating and executing socio-civic projects, rather than merely paying lip service to them. More companies could stand to learn from their example.
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