The Rise, Fall, and Re-Birth of an Iconic American Company
Author Brad Edmondson and Jeff Furman, chairman of the board of Ben & Jerry’s, discuss the culture and soul of the company, during and after its acquisition by Unilever
Brad Edmondson, author of the new book, Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s, and Jeff Furman, chairman of the board of Ben & Jerry’s, spoke to Johnson students about the company and the soul and culture on which the company thrives. The speakers were guests of Johnson’s Day Family Senior Lecturer in Business Ethics Dana Radcliffe.
Brad introduced the book to Johnson students as different because, instead of having one major takeaway, it’s a “five-act tragic comedy.” He began with act one, which included the founding of the company in the 1970s, then moved on to act two, in which the company learned to move its financial goals to make a point. Act three was expansion, during which there was a management crisis, and act four involved the purchase of Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever. The final act brought Ben & Jerry’s to where it is now, with a CEO who finally “gets” what Ben & Jerry’s is about, respects the board of directors, and sees the vision of “linked prosperity” as the focus of the company.
Jeff Furman, known as the “ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s,” spoke next about his experiences and involvement in Ben & Jerry’s. He first gave a short history of the company’s founding in Vermont, chuckling at the humble beginnings—initially, neither of the founders had any business experience, nor did they know how to make ice cream. As the small business expanded out of the local Vermont customer base, the founders realized a responsibility to give back to the community. “Businesses are the most powerful forces in the world — unless they take a social stand, they really don’t need to exist,” said Furman.
With that, the culture of “linked prosperity” that has characterized Ben & Jerry’s was formed, which holds that the company should share success with all stakeholders. Ben & Jerry’s is dedicated to a balance in its social mission, its product mission, and its economic mission. Throughout all of the “five acts” that the company has thus far experienced, Ben & Jerry’s has demonstrated a consistent commitment to these three missions. In fact, when considering expansion into a new city, the board of directors primarily discusses whether the culture of the city will accommodate the values of the company.
As the company continues to expand, it focuses on big issues that it can undertake and how it can make a statement as a company. The board members ensure the continued vision of Ben & Jerry’s by constantly remembering that the company was built on an ideology. They’ve taken risks around their social mission, said Furman. “You’ve got to keep your soul alive — that makes us different.”
As the company continues to produce the creative ice cream that we all know and love, it’s reassuring to know that at the root of the company lies a deep passion and commitment to social responsibility.
-- Da-Eun Lee, ’16, is marketing and communications intern at Johnson