Ice Cream Talk
Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield says business and giving back to the community can be a tasty, beneficial mix.
Ben & Jerry's samples ready for distribution. Photos: Laura Kneski | USF News
By Laura Kneski
TAMPA, Fla. (March 6, 2013) – Members of the University Lecture Series at the University of South Florida were busy dishing out the samples of ice cream to eager students. Cherry Garcia. Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
When Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield is in town, you can bet ice cream is not far away.
Greenfield brought the 1,000, four-ounce servings to be passed out after his lecture this week at the Marshall Student Center that focused on the roles of creativity and sustainability in business.
Speaking for him and his business partner Ben Cohen – his best friend since the seventh grade – Greenfield talked about the goals they set for the business.
Ben&Jerry’s’ goals are orientated toward not necessarily profit, but to giving back to the community. Greenfield described himself and his friend as men of the 60s: men who put peace and love over meeting a monetary bottom-line.
One of the company’s focuses is to meet social standards that had been set early on. This all came about when the brand was expanding into an international ice cream distributor. Cohen was telling their friend, Maurice, that he associated so many negative connotations with big business and did not want to turn into a heartless elitist.
According to Greenfield, their friend’s response was, “’Ben, if you don’t like the way business is done, why don’t you just change it?’” Cohen realized that the notion hadn’t occurred to him.
During its expansion, the company needed more money in order to grow. While the orthodox procedure for gaining new capital is to make deals with large-scale investors, Greenfield and Cohen decided to embark on a different path. Following Maurice’s advice, they started the first-ever in-state Vermont public stock offer because they wanted to share their success with the state in which Ben&Jerry’s got started.
The minimum investment was $126 (compared to the thousands of dollars usually required for company investment) so that everyone could get a “scoop of the action,” as Greenfield said.
A year later, the company needed more money, and so they launched a national campaign. All of these ordinary-people investors receive 7.5 percent of the ice cream’s pre-tax profit.
With 250 store locations (one of which can be found in the Andros Center at USF Tampa) 14 of those are what Greenfield referred to as partnership locations. They are each connected to a nonprofit organization, and all of the money that these ice cream shops receive goes to the organizations.
Partnering with businesses who have similar community values is another way that Ben&Jerry’s can give back. Greyston Bakery, a gourmet bakery located in upstate New York that helps people struggling economically, is the source of the brownies that are used in several Ben&Jerry’s ice cream flavors. Last year Ben&Jerry’s purchased more than $8 million worth of brownies to use in Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie Fro-Yo, Half-Baked and Half-Baked Fro-Yo.
Greenfield also shared that while the GMO (genetically modified organism) percentage in their ice creams has been reduced by 80 percent, the company hopes to have it reduced by 100 percent by the end of this year.
This internationally recognized name started out small. After Greenfield worked as a biochemistry lab technician between applying to medical school, and Cohen taste-tested a few universities, the two decided that they wanted to break into the food industry. Once they split a $5 Penn State University correspondence course in ice cream making, they wanted to be smart about the location of their shop.
The two determined that the best place to sell ice cream would be next to a large population of college students in a southern state. The two were already thinking ahead. Unfortunately, those before them had already had the idea, and no southern college town was really lacking in ice cream parlors.
Burlington, Vermont was their final destination, and now all the two needed was a loan from the bank in order to supplement their combined $8,000 savings.
Greenfield chuckled at this part. “We realized that the local bank might not be that excited about lending us money because, oh, we just moved to Vermont, so we didn’t have any families there and we didn’t have any roots. We were young – we were 26 or 27 – we didn’t have any job experience, we didn’t have any business experience, we didn’t have any ice cream experience, we didn’t have any assets, we didn’t have any collateral…”
Luckily, what they did have was a friend who worked for the small business bureau, and with his help they were able to acquire the business plan of a New York pizza restaurant. Seeing as they hadn’t much experience in writing a business plan, they simply substituted the phrase “ice cream cone” everywhere that the plan said, “slice of pizza.” Roars of laughter erupted in the MSC Ballroom.
Greenfield also touched on the notion of competition. Just as the days of Cohen driving statewide to distribute ice cream were waning and the brand was attempting to branch into Boston and Connecticut, the pair received a phone call.
Apparently, Haagen Daz – owned by Pillsbury – would no longer sell its product at the locations that were set to carry Ben&Jerry’s. Haagen Daz was making too much revenue for the stores to risk losing its product. So, Ben&Jerry’s was forced to stay in the green mountain state.
Having no luck with the Federal Trade Commission, Greenfield and Cohen sought help from their fans. They even designed a mail-in kit that centered around the theme, “What’s the Dough Boy afraid of?” which was transcribed on all of its contents: a letter to the FTC, a letter to the chamber board of Pillsbury, a bumper sticker, and the front of the t-shirt. The back of the shirt read, “Ben&Jerry’s legal defense fund major contributor.” Greenfield said that each cost $10.
The plan worked, and public outcry allowed Ben&Jerry’s to expand outside of its home state into what it is today.
While the company has since been sold to Unilever, Greenfield and Cohen still work for their creation, where they have “no authority and no responsibility,” something that Greenfield recommended to the audience with a laugh.
Student Drew Eglin had been awaiting Greenfield’s visit for three months. He said that he doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t like ice cream, but he also admires the company’s closeness to the community. He hadn’t heard about the Vermont public stock offer before.
“I think it’s wonderful for someone to think about their home state, to think about their grass roots,” Eglin said.
Greenfield closed the night by emphasizing his passion for not-so-big-headed business.
“What we’ve been learning at Ben&Jerry’s is that there is a spiritual aspect to business, just as there is to the lives of individuals,” he said. “We’re all interconnected, and as we help others, we can’t help but being helped in return. For business and people, it is all the same.”
The Center for Student Involvement will kick off its USF Week on April 8. Nine-time Grammy Award winner John Legend will arrive the following day as part of ULS. The Ultimate Bull: USF Week Talent Show will occur that Wednesday, and Bullstock will be on April 12. Bullstock’s musical entertainment is set to include bands Hot Chelle Rae, Owl City and All-American Rejects.
The University Lecture Series can be found on their Facebook page at Facebook.com/UniversityLectureSeries and on their website at uls.usf.edu
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