Ben, Jerry …& Yves
In April 2000, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold their company to the giant Anglo-Dutch multinational, Unilever. Their alternative management style lacked the fiscal and managerial discipline that market analysts and investors demanded; returns hadn’t been good. The value of the company’s stock had fallen from almost $34 in 1993 to $17 in 1999.
Although the founders’ names were obviously still going to be attached to the brand, neither of them was to hold any board or management position and neither was to be involved in day-to-day management of the company.
There was surprise, shock and a great deal of worry amongst employees, loyal users and the marketing world as to whether the new masters would want, and be able to stay true, to the brand’s three fold mission(s):
Ben and Jerry’s Social Mission: To operate the Company in a way that actively recognises the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally, and internationally.
Ben and Jerry’s Product Mission: To make, distribute and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.
Ben and Jerry’s Economic Mission: To operate the Company on a sustainable financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our stakeholders and expanding opportunities for development and career growth for our employees.
Unilever however said it hoped to carry on the tradition of engaging “in these critical, global economic and social missions”, which was no small undertaking as this meant continuing Ben & Jerry’s commitments to work with sustainable, Fair Trade certified and organic suppliers; use environmentally friendly packaging; pay premium prices to dairy farmers who did not give their cows growth hormones, creating business opportunities for depressed areas and disadvantaged people and giving a percentage of their pre-tax revenues to charity.
The terms of the acquisition allowed Ben & Jerry’s to operate separately from Unilever’s existing U.S. ice cream business, with an independent Board of Directors to provide leadership for its social mission and brand integrity. Additionally, Unilever committed $1.1 million a year to charitable causes, made a $5 million one-time grant to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, and promised to donate 7.5 % of Ben & Jerry’s pre-tax profits to a charitable foundation
However the choice of the new CEO was still going to be crucial; Yves Couette was that choice.
French-born Couette, was a long-time and well-travelled Unilever executive. He had spent several years running businesses in Mexico and India and gaining crucial experience in cross-cultural sensitivities. His mission at Ben and Jerry’s was to balance the need to maintain the brand’s unique positioning while at the same time introducing some parent-company fiscal and managerial controls.
He saw his first role as demonstrating his commitment to the brand. He adopted Ben and Jerry’s version of his CEO title – Chief Euphoria Officer. He came to work dressed casually, and volunteered to mix mulch at a company-sponsored gardening project in the local community.
He re-confirmed the commitment to the corporate social responsibility approach of the founders, saying that he envisioned Ben & Jerry’s to be “a grain of sand in the eye of Unilever” and the company continues to contribute about $1.1 million annually through employee-led corporate philanthropy and makes substantial product donations to community groups.
However, Couette also knew that some things needed to change if the business was to be able to deliver the financial returns Unilever expected. So in a very un–Ben & Jerry’s act, he downsized the company, eliminating jobs and even closing some plants. He provided more structure and introduced some basic organisational practices, and opened Ben & Jerry’s positions to Unilever’s global talent pool. He began using the Unilever performance management system, but crucially added a new performance dimension of maintaining the company’s social mission.
Recognising that some of these moves would be unpopular with the employees, he explained that, while not ideal, ultimately “the best way to spread Ben & Jerry’s enlightened ethic throughout the business world was to make the company successful.”
And ultimately that is what has happened. Under Unilever’s ownership Ben & Jerry’s has been able both to maintain its unique brand image and at the same time become profitable.