Ex-Ben & Jerry CEO cries over spilt milk

August 04, 1994|By Brian Leig | Brian Leig,hton Knight-Ridder News Service

Like a big scoop of your favorite ice cream, the subtitle of this book is a real mouthful.

It's also misleading.

This isn't so much Ben & Jerry's story as it is Ben & Fred's. Fred would be Fred "Chico" Lager, the book's author and former chief executive officer of the ice cream company. Ben would be Ben Cohen, co-founder with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.

The conflict between Ben and Fred makes for interesting reading. It turns out that things weren't all sweetness and super chunks up in Vermont in the late 1980s.

Their disagreement centered on the company's social mission, something Ben became increasingly enthusiastic about as Ben & Jerry's became more successful. Mr. Lager worried that the economic mission would suffer.

He became the company's general manager in 1982. In 1988, he became CEO. He resigned in 1990, citing burnout and differences with Mr. Cohen, but remained on the company's board of directors.

Mr. Cohen succeeded Mr. Lager when he stepped down, but announced in June that he would resign as CEO. "This particular multicollege dropout [and] failed pottery teacher is not going to be able to lead our company into its next era," he said.

As approved by the board of directors in 1988, the firm's goal was "to operate the company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life of a broad community, local, national and international."

This mission was manifested in some creative and positive ways. The company sought out suppliers such as the Greystone Bakery in New York. Greystone, which made the brownies that went into Chocolate Fudge Brownie, hired the homeless and hard-core unemployable.

Mr. Cohen also wanted to institute a loyalty oath for employees. Potential workers would be screened for "six beliefs covering everything from human rights and the environment to reducing military expenditures," according to Mr. Lager.

The board of directors vetoed the idea.

In a chapter titled "Ben Is Ben," Mr. Cohen comes in for serious criticism. He is called "a taskmaster and a perfectionist who held everyone to incredibly high standards. He rarely passed out praise and was always focused on what was wrong or had fallen through the cracks."

In fairness, Mr. Lager does say that Mr. Cohen was as hard on himself as he was on anybody else. He also acknowledges Mr. Cohen's entrepreneurial drive. Still, how to reconcile this with the man who wanted to foster a workplace full of love, support and respect?

The truth is that building Ben & Jerry's was a lot of hard work. After taking a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream-making from Pennsylvania State University, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield began looking for a place to set up shop. Their search for a college town in need of super-premium ice cream led them to Burlington, Vt. With an initial investment of $12,000, they bought an abandoned gas station, renovated it and opened their ice cream parlor in the spring of 1978.

By 1992, the maker of Vermont's finest had $132 million in sales and $6.7 million in profits and a 35 percent share of the super-premium frozen dessert market.

In between were a lot of 80-hour weeks and at least one cross-country scoopathon, in which the two founders drove a Cowmobile across the country to give away ice cream and promote their product.

So does this mean that Ben was right and Fred was wrong, and that the company's social mission had not endangered its economic goals? It would appear that giving away 7.5 percent of its profits hasn't hurt Ben & Jerry's bottom line.

Where was Jerry during all this debate? The other co-founder is something of a missing person in this book. True, he moved to Arizona in 1982, but he returned to Vermont three years later and soon was back with the company full-time.

About Mr. Lager, we learn plenty. That he chose to go by the nickname "Chico" speaks volumes about the company's informality. But then he never was your typical executive. How many other corporate leaders admired "The A-Team" so much that they routinely stamped their memos with Mr. T's face?

Unfortunately, Mr. Lager's prose isn't as colorful as his persona. Ben and Jerry are the guys who put in the chunks and came up with all the wonderfully weird flavors, but we will have to wait for another book to get their full story.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Ben & Jerry's: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business With a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor"

Author: Fred "Chico" Lager

Publisher: Crown

0$ Length, price: 242 pages, $22.50

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