My name is Evan Carmichael and I believe that the fastest and most effective way to build a business is to model the strategies of people who have already done what you’re trying to do. I call it Modeling the Masters. My last post with almost 6,000 views and 19 comments was Are people ignoring you? Secrets from Coca-Cola's Asa Candler.
Today we're going to take a closer look at how two men would take a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making from Pennsylvania State University to learn a business. That $5 course turned these two life-long friends into the creators of one of the most popular brands of ice cream in the world. This is the story of Ben & Jerry's founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and the top 3 lessons that you can learn from their success.
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“When you are led by values, it doesn’t cost your business, it helps your business.” - Jerry Greenfield
Ben Cohen (born on March 18, 1951), a Brooklyn, New York native remembers being fascinated with ice cream from a young age, when his father used to regularly eat entire half-gallons directly from the carton using a large soup spoon after dinner. The curious young Cohen would take to creating his own flavours of ice cream by combining it with various cookies and candies. In fact, Cohen’s first job was working as an ice cream truck driver in his senior year of high school. Cohen attended Calhoun High School in Merrick, New York, which is where he met his future business partner Jerry Greenfield (born on March 14, 1951). Greenfield met Cohen during a gym class together in 1963. The two self-proclaimed wild boys became fast friends, and even double-dated in Cohen’s convertible.
After parting ways and bouncing around for several years, Cohen and Greenfield would finally meet up again in New York and decide to go into business together. Both Greenfield and Cohen had an interest in the food business and after debating whether to focus on bagels or ice cream, they settled on ice cream as the product they would launch – the machinery for bagels was too expensive. Immediately, the pair began doing their industry research. They took a correspondence course in ice-cream making from Penn State University for a whopping $5, which convinced them they were on the right track. In May, 1978, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlour opened up in what was previously an abandoned gas station that they had renovated using $8,000 of their own money and $4,000 borrowed.
By creating unusual but tasty flavours like "Chubby Hubby" and the 14,000 calorie "Vermonster" – which was Greenfield’s job to manufacture – and sponsoring community festivals, word of the store quickly spread throughout the town. By the end of 1984, Ben & Jerry’s had sales in excess of $4 million, double the figure from the previous year. By 1999, the company’s total revenue was $237 million. Through a strategy of engaging in social activism and corporate social responsibility and using all natural ingredients for their products, Ben & Jerry’s stood out in a highly competitive industry. In 2000, the company and its franchises were acquired by Unilever for $326 million.
Action Item #1: Behave Responsibly
If you look at any lasting and successful company you'll see that they have a set of core values that they really believe in. It helps guide their decisions and also attracts employees and customers who believe the same way. One example of a core value is behaving responsibly. Do you believe that your business should exist not just to serve your customers but also to serve the greater community? If yes, you should incorporate this message into everything you do so people know about it and will be attracted to your business.
Ben & Jerry’s has become famous not only for its unique and delicious flavours of ice cream, but also for the path the company took to achieve its success. From day one, the two childhood friends knew that they wanted to build a different kind of business, one that approached social responsibility with serious commitment. With a business model that incorporated the principles of corporate social responsibility, Ben & Jerry’s demonstrated that significant growth is possible even when a company looks beyond profits in view of the public good.
According to Cohen and Greenfield, “Ben and I built Ben & Jerry’s on the idea that business has a responsibility to the community and environment... If you open up the mind, the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless. It’s a process of innovation... If we were going to have a business we were going to have one that was consistent with our values... We measured our success not just by how much money we made, but by how much we contributed to the community. It was a two-part bottom line.”
Action Item #2: Treat Your Workers Well
Growth comes from people. If you don't bring on people then you'll always be limited in how much you can grow. If you want your people to give their best, come up with creative ideas, and tell the world about you, treat them well. It's not just about money. People want to feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves. They want to work on challenging projects and feel like they are growing. When you treat your workers well you don't just get more done, you also have a lot more fun!
In 1987, Greenfield came up with the idea for a Ben & Jerry’s Joy Gang, with a mission “to infuse joy into everything we do.” The Vermont hippies wanted fun to be an official part of their company culture. Initially, the Joy Gang’s activities were limited to providing free pizza and 15-minute massages to staff. However, as the company expanded, so too did the range of the Joy Gang’s projects. Today, the Joy Gang’s approach to bringing fun to the workplace is three-pronged. Joy Gang grants award up to $500 to employees who have an idea on how to make work more fun. From purchasing a hot cocoa machine for the company’s freezer crew to a stereo for the production crew, Cohen and Greenfield were willing to fund any creative ideas that might make for happier workers. Along with other incentives and benefits, such as allowing workers to bring their dogs to work or wear jeans if the workers chose to.
According to Cohen and Greenfield, “We thought, why don’t we get together and do something fun and be our own bosses and since we liked to eat we should do something with food... We wanted our workers to work hard, but do it in an environment that was fun... No one wants to dread going to work... Our employees are what makes Ben & Jerry's successful.”
Action Item #3: Challenge the Big Guys
Whatever industry you're in there are probably big companies already dominating your market. Don't be afraid of them, just find a different way to do things. Smaller companies are more agile, can make decisions quickly, can provide better service, and can get closer to the customers. Use those benefits as a way to challenge the big guys and start winning some market share.
Cohen and Greenfield were just a couple of hippies trying to avoid becoming simply another big company. Living through the 1960s, the two disliked big business for all of its negative social and environmental effects. In 1984, big business came after the little guys. Pillsbury, the multi-million dollar company behind Haagen-Dazs, began to feel threatened by the rapid growth of Ben & Jerry’s. In an attempt to shut down the young upstarts, Pillsbury gave Ben & Jerry’s distributors throughout Boston an ultimatum: sell Haagen-Dazs or sell Ben & Jerry’s, but not both. Cohen and Greenfield were not about to let this corporate giant shut them down. After finding little hope in their legal options, the two decided to take matters into their own hands. Together, they launched the now famous “What’s the dough boy afraid of?” campaign and began taking it as public as they could. From placing advertisements on the sides of buses to renting banner planes for flying around major sporting events, Cohen and Greenfield did whatever they could think of to gain support for their little business. It worked and only made Ben & Jerry's more successful.
According to Cohen and Greenfield, “We rallied people around our cause and it worked... We started getting like a hundred calls a night, most of them between the hours of midnight and 3 am...help two Vermont hippies fight the giant Pillsbury Corporation... We did not want to become another cog in the economic machine.”
When Jerry Greenfield was asked to speak at The College of New Jersey for senior's week he discussed his decision to sell Ben & Jerry's to Unilever. He said, “We sold to them because they have a good sense of humour. The dame day they bought Ben & Jerry's, they bought SlimFast.”
“Ben and I have been friends since junior high in Long Island, where we were the shortest, fattest kids on the track.”
“Business can be a source of progressive change.”
“Business has never had improving the quality of life of the general public as one of its priorities. We decided to redefine the bottom line at Ben & Jerry's.”
What Do You Think?
Does your company behave responsibly? Do you treat your employees well? Are you willing to challenge the big guys? Tell me what you think by leaving a message below.
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