WATERTOWN — Sturtz Theater at Jefferson Community College was nearly full on Wednesday morning as students crowded in to hear about two perpetually popular topics: ice cream and entrepreneurship.
Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. gave the keynote speech to kick off the Jefferson Leadership & Business Symposium — a half-day event for students interested in learning business skills — shortly after 9 a.m. He began by assuring students he had brought ice cream for the provided lunch.
“I am always more warmly received when I bring ice cream,” he said, to loud cheering.
Beyond the ice cream, though, Mr. Greenfield brought a message of how he and Ben Cohen shaped Ben & Jerry’s into both a popular ice cream brand and a company focused on benefitting the world outside the boardroom.
“I want to share with folks the idea that you can combine social and environmental concerns with a for-profit business,” he said after the presentation. “High school, college age kids are really interested in putting their own values into their work, they don’t want to just go work somewhere to earn a paycheck.”
Mr. Greenfield was up front about the fact that he no longer runs Ben & Jerry’s, which was bought out by Unilever 18 years ago, although he and Mr. Cohen are still employed by the company.
“We have jobs where we have no responsibilities and no authority,” Mr. Greenfield joked, adding that was a career goal for the students to strive for.
Rather than focus on the current business operation, then, Mr. Greenfield told the story of how it got started. Mr. Cohen had dropped out of four different colleges and Mr. Greenfield had been rejected from medical school twice when they decided to found the business.
“We were pretty much failing at everything we were trying to do,” Mr. Greenfield said.
They decided to try something different. They considered opening an ice cream parlor in a warm, rural college town — only to realize the warm towns were saturated. Instead, they took a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making and moved with $8,000 in savings to Burlington, Vt. To secure a loan from the bank, they got a copy of a New York City pizzeria business plan and copied it, replacing “slice of pizza” with “ice cream cone.”
With a $4,000 loan from a bank, a five-gallon rock-salt ice cream maker and an old gas station store front, they opened up for the summer of 1978.
“Everything was wonderful,” Mr. Greenfield said.
The winter, however, took a toll on ice cream sales, and even their promotion of taking a penny off the cost for every degree Celsius under zero failed to sustain them. To make it work, they sold ice cream to local restaurants.
The next summer, they decided they could package pint containers and sell to mom and pop stores close by, along with restaurants.
The business grew and they expanded distributors regionally as far as Albany and Boston, at which point Haagen-Dazs, owned by Pillsbury, told distributors they would not ship ice cream with distributors who carried Ben & Jerry’s.
Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Cohen decided they needed some help in taking on this challenge, and launched a ground up “What is the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign against Pillsbury, purchasing ads on buses, in Rolling Stone magazine, and including an 800 number on all their packaging with a number to get more information. Callers who were interested could get kits with brochures, bumper stickers and letters demanding that Pillsbury let the ice cream be distributed until Pillsbury relented.
As the brand grew, Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Cohen realized something:“‘We’re not ice cream guys anymore, we’re turning into businessmen,’” Mr. Greenfield recalled. “It was not really our idea of a good time.”
So they intentionally shifted the business to a socially responsible model. Rather than going to venture capitalists for funding to expand, they had an initial public offering for Vermont residents only, giving the community a stake in the company and a benefit from their success. They raised $750,000 from the offering, and one of every 100 Vermont families had stock in the company. They also began donating 7.5 percent of pre-tax profits to a foundation and worked on sourcing, including buying brownies from Greyston Bakery, a bakery that focuses on employing people who might have trouble finding work otherwise and on supporting the local community.
“This way of doing business has all these benefits for the company,” Mr. Greenfield said. “What the company has been learning is there’s a spiritual component to business ... we are all interconnected, and as you help others, you cannot help but be helped in return.”
And, of course, it helps if you make good ice cream. Mr. Greenfield’s current favorite — Americone Dream, with fudge and caramel covered waffle cones.
“I’m really into caramel these days,” he said.
The Gist of It
n ICE CREAM: Students at the Jefferson Leadership & Business Symposium began their day Wednesday hearing the story of Ben & Jerry’s from Jerry Greenfield, one of the co-founders of the popular ice cream brand
n SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: Mr. Greenfield said he hoped students would leave with a sense that if they want to improve the world, they can do so while also succeeding in business — a model he and Ben Cohen worked out for their company