Cohen, Bennett R.
Cohen, Bennett R.
Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
Bennett R. Cohen's name makes up one–half of what may be the world's most beloved ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry's. From its inception in 1978, this business visionary has guided the company from an amateur operation in a renovated gas station to a multi–million dollar world brand that was purchased in 2000 for a staggering $326 million by Unilever conglomerate. But Cohen never really had a taste for the usual corporate ethics. His real interests are improving social causes through responsible business practices. Since the buyout, Cohen continues practicing what he preaches, taking on such business issues as eliminating sweatshop industries, and establishing a fund to purchase companies in low–income communities with the goal of raising wages and benefits.
Cohen is on the boards of several organizations and is an active founding member of Businesses for Social Responsibility. He's a regular on the speaker circuit for colleges, universities, businesses, and non–profit organizations. Over the years, Ben & Jerry's has been nationally recognized for their superpremium products as well as their contributions to the community. In 1984, Ben & Jerry's was named "National Ice Cream Retailer of the Year" by National Ice Cream Retailers Association and Dairy Record Magazine. Ben and Jerry are placed on the 1987 Esquire Register, the magazine's "annual honor roll of men and women whose accomplishments, values and dreams reflect America at its best." In 1988 the pair scooped up two more prestigious accolades. The first was The Corporate Giving Award from the Council on Economic Priorities. The award soiree was held in New York City, with Joanne Woodward as the host. The second was at the best–known address in the United States at a White House Rose Garden ceremony where the pair was honored as U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year by President Reagan. Then the pair moved on the halls of higher learning, accepting Columbia University's Lawrence A. Wien Prize for corporate social responsibility.
Cohen, divorced, with one son, was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn in 1951. He met Ben & Jerry cofounder Jerry Greenfield in gym class in a public school in Merrick, Long Island. Both were admitted outcasts and bonded over their shortcomings in the athletic department. Cohen graduated from Calhoun High in Merrick in the late 1960s and enrolled in Colgate University but left school his sophomore year. He studied pottery instead and other crafts at Skidmore College and later at an institution called University Without Walls.
"From the time I was in my teens until I turned 30, I talked to my father about things I planned on doing. He talked me out of them," Cohen told Marian Christy of the Boston Globe. As a result, Cohen never really decided upon a career goal and instead took jobs that were interesting learning experiences. "I learned that there are two kinds of bosses, good and bad, and that I worked harder for the boss who trusted me," he told Christy. He had numerous, and varied, jobs on his resume: in high school he had driven an ice cream truck, and during his young adult years he worked in a bakery, drove a taxi, guarded a racetrack, flipped burgers at McDonalds, and was even a staff member in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
Cohen's casual attitude, artistic abilities, and sense of duty eventually led him into a steady job as a crafts teacher at a camp near Saratoga Springs, New York. He had lost touch with his old friend Jerry Greenfield, who had earned a degree from Oberlin College but then met with rejection when he applied to medical school. The pair rekindled their friendship when Greenfield was working in a New York City research laboratory, and they decided to open a business together. Cohen had some experience making ice cream at the camp with his students, and he and Greenfield decided that this was a product that almost everybody liked and that did not require expensive equipment to produce.
Cohen and Greenfield combined their $8,000 in savings, borrowed another $4,000, took a Penn State University's correspondence course in ice–cream–making, and began looking for a location. They liked the college town of Burlington, Vermont, and it lacked an ice cream parlor. With these two requirements, they leased an old gas station there and opened Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop in May of 1978. They vowed that if their business went under, they would simply become cross–country truck drivers. From the start, Cohen staffed the counter and took care of the financial side, while Greenfield made the ice cream. They both loved to create new flavors, however. As a kid, Cohen used to mix cookies and candy into his ice cream, and from its earliest days in business Ben & Jerry's gained a cult following for their delicious and bizarre concoctions.
Their store was extremely popular in Burlington, but Cohen and his partner were admittedly incompetent when it came to finances. After many late nights poring over accounts and receipts, they hired a Burlington bar owner, Fred Chico Lager, to help out. Lager helped the company expand into ice cream packing operations, and Cohen began delivering the pints to local stores in his Volkswagen station wagon. They opened more stores in New England and eventually went national with their product and their franchise in the 1980s. Greenfield dropped out of the business for a time when his wife went to college, and by 1985 Cohen was experiencing his first taste of corporate burnout. He tried to sell Ben & Jerry's Homemade, but had a change of heart when Greenfield returned to share the burden.
It was at this point that Cohen and Greenfield decided to make the business work according to their principles, instead of altering their values to suit the profit–driven nature of business. It was a radical idea. When they purchased nuts for their ice creams from South America or blueberries from Maine, they looked to trade directly with the indigenous peoples in the area who often harvested such crops, instead of buying from a corporation in the middle who pocketed most of the profit. In 1992 they launched a Partnershop with a Harlem shelter for homeless men; the store was staffed by residents and its earnings went back into the shelter. In 1999 the newest Partnershop premiered in Chicago. Lawson House is a YMCA that provides low–cost housing and job training assistance for the homeless.
Cohen has taken the occasional sabbatical. He returned the first time and began the 1 Percent for Peace campaign in the 1980s, which urged the U.S. federal government to redirect 1 percent of its budget to positive–minded projects. After another year off in 1993, he announced his plans to look into beginning a graduate business school based on the Ben & Jerry's ethos.
Chronology: Bennett R. Cohen
1963: Met Jerry Greenfield in gym class.
1978: Opened Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop in Vermont.
1981: Opened first franchise.
1985: Established Ben & Jerry's Foundation.
1987: Published Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book.
1992: Opened first store in Russia.
1995: Retired from CEO position.
1998: Declined offer buyout with Greenfield.
2000: Sold Ben & Jerry's to Unilever.
Cohen resigned as CEO in June of 1994, but he remains board chair and still invents new flavors for the famed roster, which includes such experiments as Holy Cannoli! and Smores. Standards in their funky flavors remain Wavy Gravy, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cherry Garcia, and New York Super Fudge Chunk. When he stepped down, the company announced a campaign to replace him that they named "Yo! I Want to be CEO!" Participants were invited to submit in an essay of 100 words or less why they would be the ideal ice cream company executive.
Eventually, Ben & Jerry's expanded to include frozen yogurt, sorbet and low–fat ice cream for their calorie conscious customers. They regularly add more flavors and limited–edition "Special Batches" during the year. To celebrate their twenty–first anniversary in 1999, they had a record–setting Free Cone Day. Over half a million free ice creams were dispensed across America in 2000 Ben & Jerry's Scoop shops as the ultimate customer gratuity. More importantly, the company also developed an environmentally friendly brown paper pint carton, after determining that the paper bleaching process is a leading national contributor of toxic water pollution.
Cohen devotes a great deal of his time to Businesses for Social Responsibility. He is a founding member of this organization, whose aim is to challenge the way companies do business and to show how profits and ethics are not mutually exclusive areas. Cohen wrote more extensively on this topic in the 1997 book, Ben & Jerry's Double Dip. A major ice cream purveyor, Dreyers Grand, offered Cohen and Greenfield a large sum of money to sell Ben & Jerry's in early 1998, but the pair declined. In April 2000, pressured by shareholders, Cohen and Greenfield agreed to sell their beloved brand name to Unilever, a British–Dutch Corporation. After the buyout, the pair retain employee status and sit on a separate Ben & Jerry's board.
Social and Economic Impact
In 1981, Time magazine began a cover story on ice cream with an opening sentence stating that Ben & Jerry's was the "best—in the world." Since then, its cult following has expanded to include not just East Coast cognoscenti but residents of Israel and the Netherlands; its pints can be purchased in hundreds of thousands of American supermarkets and convenience stores. But its founders have become role models for entrepreneurs interested in enriching their communities through capitalist ventures.
Cohen and Greenfield call their strategy values–led capitalism. Since the mid–1980s, the Ben & Jerry's Foundation has received 7.5 percent of the ice cream company's pre–tax profits; a nine–member advisory board of employees choose projects and charities that will receive the profits.
They have also publicized concerns about Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), used in the milk industry, and for many years purchased from a Vermont dairy that did not use the chemical.
Ben & Jerry's employees may indeed be the happiest workers in the state of Vermont. (The company's headquarters have remained in Burlington.) It is consistently cited as one of the best companies in America for which to work offering workers high wages, generous benefits, and three pints of ice cream to take home for every full workday. Though the ice cream business has witnessed ups and downs in the 1990s, the company has found community service projects for the workers and kept them on the payroll.
After the sale of Ben & Jerry's to Unilever, Cohen continues on his path of social activism through capitalism strategy. In September 2001, the business whiz invested in a garment manufacturer, aiming to raise the profile and standards of an industry marred by outright violations and injustices. In August 2001, Cohen established the Barred Rock Fund, a philanthropic venture focused on buying companies in low–income areas, concentrating on improving conditions. The Fund's first acquisition was Sun & Earth, a Philadelphia manufacturer of cleaning products, partnered with a local non–profit. Sun & Earth employees perks included a 23 percent pay raise and obtaining health insurance.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
30 Community Dr.
South Burlington, VT 05403–6828
Business Phone: (802)651–9600
"Ben & Jerry," 14 July 1998. Available at http://www.benjerry.com
<"Ben & Jerry's Co–Founder Establishes Venture Philanthropy Fund." Philanthropy News Digest, 7 August 2001.
"Ben & Jerry's Co–Founder Invests in "Sweat–Free Garments." SRInews.com, 10 September 2001.
"Ben & Jerry's Company Overview." The Motley Fool.com, 7 October 2001.
Christy, Marian. "Ben & Jerry: Here's the Scoop." Boston Globe, 26 June 1991.
Gershon, George. "The Art of Taking Time Off." Inc, February 1993.
"Takeover for Ben & Jerry's?" The Associated Press, 2 December 1999.
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