Jerry Greenfield is more than just a pretty face, he is the Jerry in Ben and Jerry's. With a $5 course in ice cream making and a life-long friend he helped create one of the world's premier ice cream brands. It was a rare pleasure to meet with one of the most creative minds in world business and talk about everything ranging from the American nuclear programme to how it all started.
Having already attended one of his lectures at the University of Vermont I knew what I would be in for. Always talkative, friendly and genial, with a remarkable array of interests, he would be easy to talk to but a little tough to follow. On a warm summer evening with the help of Professor Ned McMahon from the University of Vermont a meeting was scheduled and to be honest I was more than a little nervous about meeting with him face to face. The Waterman building had a faint musty smell about it and at the coffee shop that we sat in, it was difficult to hear above the din. Seemingly unperturbed, I waited for him to arrive as I got my notes together and tested the tape recorder.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield enjoying their own creation
His entrance was about as casual as they come, sauntering in wearing white shorts, a black t-shirt and sporting a salt-and-pepper coloured beard, the overall aura was a cross between hippie and adolescent. With a big smile on his face, deep voice, boyish grin and cup of Dunkin Doughnuts coffee in his hand we were ready to start. As it so happens the first questions are directed towards the reporter rather than the other way around. He has little knowledge of where I am from but is as eager as ever to find out. Finally ten minutes into the meeting we start and I ask him how it all began. In an answer that must have been repeated thousands of times during his career he starts off with how he met Ben. Jerry says, “Ben and I were friends from when we were 13. And basically I had gone to college and got rejected from all the medical schools I applied to. Ben had dropped out from several colleges and was jumping from one job to another and then we decided to open up a homemade ice cream parlour essentially for fun.” By the time he is done one can see that the question bored him a little, yet he still continued, “We had a very small investment and wanted to be a community-based store and after being in business for a few years the company started to prosper and we started to recognise the role that business plays in society more and that prompted us to want to see how we could use our business to be a different kind of business.”
From the outset it is plainly visible that he is anything but a capitalist, which by the way I'm not saying is a wholly bad thing. He seemed primed and ready for the next question, which was when he talked about a different kind of business. He blurted out, “It was somewhat of an amorphous idea, it was not very well formed but the idea was that we wanted to have a business that would view its role in the community as a neighbour,
that essentially operated as any other neighbour would, that it would help take care of its other neighbours.” This was different from the typical role of business, where the usual goal is to make money and not be concerned about the rest of the community. He continued, “for Ben and me, we had never had a formal business education so we never learned what the role of business was.” The naivety of voice and the emotion which spewed out of his response was exactly what you'd expect to hear from a reluctant businessman.
When asked about his idealistic philosophy he said that he thought it was essentially down to the kind of people he and Ben are. As he mentioned he had worked to become a doctor and wanted to be in the helping profession and Ben had worked as a crafts teacher at a school for emotionally disturbed adolescents, their real need to help people was forged early on in life and just took its logical path towards business. Jerry adds “ I think that's one of the differences between me and Ben and people who typically go into business. People who are normally drawn to business have some sort of financial background and people like Ben and me who worked in the helping professions are usually more drawn to non-profit organisations. And so we found ourselves in business rather than being on a path to get into business”
He adds that Ice cream was not the first choice for them, they thought about bagels, but basically Ben and him wanted to live in a college town because they thought that college kids eat a lot of food. So when they thought about different types of foods they thought about picking a kind of food that was becoming popular in cities but had not made its way to the college towns and at that time the two different choices were homemade ice cream and bagels. This was obviously many years ago, in 1978.
I finally asked, “So if things had gone differently we could actually be sitting here talking about the Ben and Jerry's bagel?” To which he replied, “We actually went to a used restaurant supply store to price out bagel-making equipment and it cost more money than we had, and we figured ice cream had to be cheaper.”
Ben and Jerry's has been on the cutting edge of corporate social responsibility and has tackled some interesting social issues as Jerry picked out a few ideas and concepts which stood out
He said, “In the late 80's we came up with an idea for an ice cream, a chocolate covered ice cream bar on a stick and this was towards the end of the cold war and what we decided to do was to call this product a peace pop and on the packaging we talked about the military budget and suggested allocating 1% of its budget to peace through understanding activities, the idea being that we can have a more secure and stable world if people in different countries got to know each other. The military budget was then $ 300 billion dollars and we talked about allocating one percent or three billion dollars and giving it to this group called 'One percent for peace.' This was an incredibly controversial topic, even within the company. In the end even people who disagreed with the position of the company respected the fact that we were taking a position on something, that it actually stood for something.”
In the same vein, last year the company came out with a flavour called American Pie which was apple pie-flavoured ice cream and on the lid of the package was a graphic of a pie chart showing the United States federal discretionary budget which showed that half of the budget goes to the military and the rest of the budget gets sliced up into tiny pieces going into different areas of human, economic and environmental needs such as job retraining and energy independence, healthcare and such. The company suggested that some of the money the government spends on the military goes to keep up obsolete era weapon systems to fight the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. The United States has about 10,000 nuclear weapons, which everyone accepts is far more than they need and they end up spending 20 billion dollars a year keeping them up and running. So it was very different to have an ice cream company talking about nuclear weapons and using that on its packaging. Jerry had to squeeze in the last word saying, “Some people say we did it to sell ice cream, but to them I'll say I don't think talking about nuclear weapons sells ice cream!” And it was a point well noted.
When finally quizzed over which flavour he and Ben would be he said, “Oh, I never think about stuff like that. Well there's Chubby Hubby, I think that's a good description of me, I'm a chubby hubby. It's more so the description than the ingredients themselves. As for Ben he said, “You know Ben is always like Cherry Garcia, there's a certain freedom and free thinking and sharing what you have with other people which embodies him in that flavor.” At the end of the day Jerry Greenfield is like the ice cream he created, fun, politically and socially responsible and always looking for what's outside the box.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008