The average American might know this much about Ben & Jerry’s: good ice cream, made in Vermont, flavors with funny names.
The average Ithacan might know a bit more. Ben & Jerry’s was always an Ithaca kind of company: deliciously radical, with Peace Pops and Cherry Garcia, and in the 1990s, a company-sponsored “scoop shop” run by youths as a social project in the heart of our downtown which demonstrated first-hand the social activism that distinguished the brand.
The dyed-in-the-tie kind of Ithacan should know even more, since one of its own, local lawyer and activist Jeff Furman, brought the scoop shop to Ithaca, and was with Ben (Cohen) and Jerry (Greenfield) from the start.
Furman has been called “the ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s.” He helped write the company’s first business plan in 1977, and is chairman of the board of directors today. He is a subject and source of a new book by local author Brad Edmondson, Ice Cream Social: The Struggle For The Soul of Ben & Jerry’s.
The book is a history of the company with a focus on its forced sale over a decade ago, when noirish distribution and other business problems threatened the company’s survival, first, and finally left it defenseless against an onslaught of takeover attempts by rivals via Wall Street. In 2000, with no way out, it approved a sale to Unilever, one of the world’s largest food conglomerates. Unilever promised a level of shared control, and seemed the least hostile choice.
Like many marriages between two cultures, this union was troubled. Promises went unkept. The upper hand, of course, was with the money. Ben & Jerry’s had no capacity to start a break-up, except to demand one: loudly, if it had to.
Unilever knew that Ben & Jerry’s had always had a flair for publicity, to either champion good causes or condemn crass power. Could Unilever best, stand, or even tolerate such vilification from a partner?
“If the marriage broke up, “ Jeff Furman said in an interview with the Ithaca Times last week, “it was going to be a hell of a divorce.” The ultimate (so far) avoidance of the divorce is featured in Edmondson’s book. Following are excerpts from the Ithaca Times’ interview with Furman and Edmondson.
Ithaca Times: At the start of the book, Brad, you warn that it is not a normal business book.
Brad Edmondson: Yes. I’ve been a business writer for 25 years. Ben & Jerry’s is not a normal business. The normal business book is executives praising their own achievements and deflecting blame for their mistakes. This book is different, because this company is different.
Jeff Furman: We praise our mistakes!
BE: That’s actually largely true. This is a company of enormous successes, but always looking at its mistakes. That aspect alone made me want to write the book.
JF: You learn from your mistakes. But I’m proud of our successes. We were social entrepreneurs before there was even such a term. We were buying local and stressing the importance of supporting local economies before anyone else. We advocated for worker rights and same-sex benefits. We had a pay scale that reflected what we now call the living wage. Our workers today start at $16-plus an hour. I’m proud of our initiatives today on genetically modified agriculture and climate change.
BE: A dean at Cornell’s business school told me that today 25% of its applicants say they want to work in areas of sustainability. That was unheard of a generation ago.
JF: Well, and getting back to our mistakes, none of us were coming from the Johnson School of Business! We had no business training. We made things up as we went along. We took chances. Everything was an adventure. But we did a lot more things right than wrong.
BE: Another way this book is different is that it’s independent. A lot of business books are, you know, spotlight-on-celebrity. That was a danger with this book because, of course, Ben and Jerry are celebrities. I didn’t want to write a book like that. I wanted the stories of the people who ran the company and did the work and made the decisions out of the spotlight.
IT: You didn’t interview Ben and Jerry for the book.
BE: No. I did try, at least to get their perspectives. They responded very cordially, but declined. I think they didn’t want to relive the past, these episodes and struggles that were very painful for them.
IT: Obviously you don’t think it hurt the book.
BE: No, I think it helped. It allowed me to focus on these other stories and perspectives. Ben & Jerry’s affected a lot of people’s lives. I actually had to include a list of main characters - an actual list, in the front of the book. It’s about 40 people. And I had to leave a lot of material out. I really wanted to write a book that, unlike most business books, you could read in one sitting. But it was getting like Tolstoy.
IT: The company was sold 13 years ago. Why now for the book?
JF: I had a lot of conversations over the years with people who didn’t know that Ben & Jerry’s had been sold, or didn’t know that a special board existed to guard the social mission. It seemed like a good idea to write the story down.
For me, in 2000, I couldn’t imagine becoming chair of the board when Unilever took over. But by 2010, I was ready to try. I’d learned a lot about what they need to move projects along, and I had a better sense of how the board could be most effective.
BE: Five years ago, it couldn’t have been written. There was no transparency from Unilever. It was a tense period. The board had started to get active again after a period of complacency. Maybe of trust. The first few years, you want to trust, or see how things go.
JF: Everyone was tired of fighting.
BE: But after a while it became clear that the social mission was suffering. It was a lesson about what would inevitably happen in a situation like this. It was a unique situation with a small company that thought about product, profits, and social mission equally, and an international corporation that didn’t. At all. And wouldn’t, if not forced to. The board realized that there had to be constant advocacy. When that started, it was a struggle, and there was a lack of transparency from Unilever.
IT: So the board is back, and makes it clear it’s not going anywhere. Meanwhile, corporate structure moves people around all the time. So that’s an advantage for the board.
JF: Right. This company is our life’s work, for a lot of us, but believe me, it is really small potatoes for Unilever, among their other interests.
IT: So they began listening to you. The book describes a letter of Jeff’s to Unilever telling them their short-term thinking and short-changing the social mission is “eroding the value of the brand.” The book describes a “re-radicalization plan” that they agreed to.
BE: A “ways of working” plan and other new agreements were constructed. Unilever could see that the story wasn’t over. They’d have to learn how to build the business without destroying it.
IT: The book uses the phrase “linked prosperity.”
BE: That’s an idea that maybe everyone in this unique situation can buy into. How do you make a corporation buy into the idea of a social mission? Really buy into it? When you talk about linked prosperity, it’s easier. You’re acknowledging that, also, the economics have to be right. So now maybe you can have a period of transparency, with no high drama.
JF: Come on, you need some high drama!
BE: Sure, if that’s what it takes to keep the mission alive. The board learned the necessity of constant struggle, but it also learned lessons about the role of corporate power. It worked with the corporation to create a new bicameral structure that would guarantee the board’s survival. The board learned how to protect itself. That’s important. Another important thing to me in writing the book was telling how social entrepreneurs work. How social missions come from the bottom up. I wanted to show how small companies build commitment and rise to challenges. Ben & Jerry’s has managed to pass its level of commitment on to a board now with people half the original founders’ age. It’s a struggle that lasts more than one lifetime.
The book is not proscriptive. I don’t say, here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys, this is what they did, this is what they should have done.
IT: Although there is one real bad guy in the book.
IT: Despite Jeff’s enthusiasm, let’s not identify this bad guy here, for the sake of delicacy and suspense. But, Brad, did you contact him for the book?
BE: I left a number of messages. Finally he responded, that he had heard the messages, but that was it, and he never contacted me again. I regretted it, as a lost opportunity, but chances are all I would have gotten was typical business executive dissembling.
IT: Is he living in rich anonymity in Switzerland?
BE: No, he’s in California, still active, doing corporate takeovers. You know, that’s what he does.
IT: In the book, we see how it’s done. It’s pretty chilling. He was trusted, he’d been given a lot of power fix problems, but all he’s really doing is reducing options one by one until all that’s left is the one he wants, to make your enemies, let’s call them, rich, including him. But in the book, you don’t call him out, you don’t use a word like “enemy.” You don’t tell, you show.
BE: I write the story as it happened and leave it up to you who should have done what, and what the lessons are. As an independent writer, I had the freedom to do that, and to avoid the false idea of business book as road map. Business books present themselves that way, to sell copies. But there are no road maps. Procedures, decisions, they’re just part of a story.
IT: At times, the book reads like a biography, of a living entity, with a beginning, growth, and outcome. At times, it reads like a soap opera.
JF: It is a soap opera!
BE: That’s good. I wanted to write a book you could read in one sitting. If it reads like that, that makes me really happy. •
Edmondson will take part in a reading and signing of his new book from 6 to 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13 at Ithaca’s Buffalo Street Books.