Learn about the man behind Ben & Jerry’s dream for social responsibility in business and his dedication to maintain authenticity.
"The business Ben, Jerry, and Jeff built sprang from these values. Selling ice cream wasn't their real purpose."
In Ice Cream Social (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), Brad Edmondson and Jeff Furman give an inside look into the successes and failures of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream from its beginning. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, see how the core value of social responsibility took root and how it has stayed a lasting part of the company.
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In this story, the good guys and the bad guys are not always where you might expect them to be. For example, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are widely known in business as pioneers of social responsibility. But the people who wrote the sale agreements that preserved Ben & Jerry’s as a socially responsible business were elite corporate lawyers, about as far from Vermont hippies as you can get. Several Unilever executives have become so enthusiastic about the drive for linked prosperity that they have said and done risky things to promote it. And the social mission’s most steadfast champion—the only person who consistently fought for it at every stage of the story—describes himself as an activist first, and adds that he has little interest in being a business executive.
Jeff Furman’s coworkers often describe him as “the ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s.” He became friends with Ben and Jerry years before they scooped their first cone. He helped them write the company’s first business plan in 1977 by borrowing a similar plan from a pizza joint and substituting the word “cone” whenever that plan used the word “slice.” He did a lot of different tasks for the company as it struggled to get going; he joined the company’s board in 1982, and he was a key contributor during its decade of rapid growth. He is still on the board in 2014, and since 2010 he has been its chair.
Jeff really is a lawyer and an accountant, but not in an ordinary sense. One Unilever executive refers to him as “a lawyer in disguise.” He is a balding guy with a fringe of long hair that he tucks behind his ears. He smiles a lot, trims his beard only occasionally, wears a T-shirt every day—no matter how cold it is—and spends his time working with not-for-profit groups and businesses that have progressive values. And he didn’t even meet Ben or Jerry until he was thirty.
Jeff got a degree in accounting in 1965 and a degree in law in 1969, but as the 1970s began, he was not exactly on a career track. In fact, he couldn’t keep a job. He was a parole officer until he was given a gun and told to prevent a suspect from fleeing out the back door. He couldn’t even bring himself to load the thing. Boston University fired him for spreading the word about an antiwar protest. What he did like was working for the Workers Defense League, representing blue-collar folks and conscientious objectors. That experience gave him strong feelings of compassion for people who hold entry-level jobs. It was a big reason why he later suggested that Ben & Jerry’s adopt the policy of paying the company’s top employees no more than five times its starting salary, and it is why the company continues to pay a living wage to its employees today.
Jeff met Ben Cohen at Highland Community, an innovative school for twenty-five emotionally troubled teenagers near the isolated mountain town of Paradox, New York. Jeff did administrative work, and Ben taught pottery. Naomi Tannen, the school’s founder and director, was a powerful influence on both of them. Jeff says that they were Naomi’s employees, not her students, but it could have gone either way. “She had a dream, and she pursued it relentlessly,” said Jeff. “She was also tolerant of eccentric people, as long as they were pointed in the right direction. I think Ben and I both learned a lot from her example.”
Jeff was raised in a Jewish family, and so was Ben; Jeff grew up in Queens, and Ben grew up on Long Island, less than twenty miles away; they both had been cab drivers; they both liked to laugh and do silly things; et cetera, et cetera. Hilarity ensued. Ben soon introduced Jeff to Jerry Greenfield, who had been Ben’s best friend since they struggled through the seventh grade together. Jerry was cut from the same cloth. The three men shared ideals that were formed in the 1960s and tempered by Vietnam and Watergate. They were smart and creative but ambivalent toward government, suspicious of big business, painfully aware of injustice, and looking for better ways to live.
The business Ben, Jerry, and Jeff built sprang from these values. Selling ice cream wasn’t their real purpose. If it didn’t come from the heart, they weren’t interested. As the years went by and the business got bigger, they kept pushing for ways to make things more interesting, more political, and more fun. They went farther than they ever thought they would. Calvin Trillin wrote that Ben represented “one of the people who carried the style of the sixties into consumer businesses aimed at their contemporaries, and whose response to success is to express not gratitude for living in a land of opportunity but astonishment at a world so weird that people like themselves are considered respectable businessmen.”
For the first five years of their ice cream business, Ben and Jerry found themselves working a lot of eighty-hour weeks, a lifestyle neither of them enjoyed. The money was not that great, either. They briefly decided to sell the business in 1982, when it might have been worth $500,000, and they asked Jeff to help with the legal and financial questions. Jerry moved away from Vermont then, but Ben changed his mind and decided not to sell. (Jeff persuaded Jerry to hold on to 10 percent of the company’s stock and stay on as a consultant; Jerry returned to the board of directors in 1990 and stayed until the company was sold in 2000). And then the broker that Ben & Jerry’s had hired to sell the business sued for breach of contract and won $100,000.
The moment the judgment was announced, Jeff ran down the street from the courtroom to Merchants Bank in Burlington, Vermont. Ben and Jerry followed close behind, with the county sheriff literally on their heels. The guys persuaded the banker, a friend of theirs, to let them withdraw the entire contents of the company’s accounts and give it to them in cash. Then Jeff flew home to New York, where the court couldn’t get at the money, with $90,000 on his lap in a paper bag. When he got home, he dumped the money on the bed, turned to his girlfriend, Sara, and said, “Look what I found!” (Maybe he was trying to impress her; in any event, she later married him.) Jeff kept the money in a safe-deposit box until the lawsuit was settled, and then sent it back to Vermont. Ben and Jerry never doubted that he would.
Reprinted with permission from Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's by Brad Edmondson and published by Berrett-Koehler, 2014.