City & Business: When the raspberry ripple turned into a rocky road

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The Independent Online
IT IS sad to see a dream punctured. But when a company's founders step back, commercial reality has a nasty habit of elbowing its way into the picture. That seems to be about to happen at Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the 'real' ice- cream maker based in Vermont, north of New York. It is a cautionary tale for corporate idealists the world over.

Ben & Jerry's landed in Britain three months ago with its Wavy Gravy and Chunky Monkey flavours to challenge the market leader, Haagen-Dazs. Although its shares are quoted on Nasdaq, the US over-the-counter stock market, the company likes to give that made-in-the-backyard feel, complete with a social conscience that makes Body Shop look like Mr Gradgrind.

Success has been their biggest problem. One co-founder, Jerry Greenfield, has already taken three years off, and the other - Ben Cohen - has threatened to quit. Now they are looking for an outsider as chief executive officer. 'Administrating an organisation of this size is beyond me,' Ben admits. And one of their dearest principles has hit the peanut brittle.

As part of its socially conscious founding ethos, B&J laid down a far- reaching corporate rule: no one could earn more than seven times as much as the lowest-paid employee. As Mr Cohen was content with pounds 140,000 ( pounds 93,000) a year, that gave the humblest broom-pusher dollars 20,000.

However, when Mr Cohen asked around the market he found no suitable takers for his dollars 140,000 as CEO. So the 'seven-times' rule has had to go.

Messrs Cohen and Greenfield have consoled themselves by saying they want only candidates with 'the broad experience and gentleness of spirit necessary to guard and grow the company's unique, community-focused culture'.

Trouble is, anyone who is worth the near-dollars 300,000 B&J have in mind is likely to be a touch less than gentle, otherwise he or she would settle for Ben Cohen's pay packet and the seven-times problem would not arise. And a new chief executive coming in with that sort of salary to defend will almost certainly want to make changes. Ben & Jerry may not like that, but the company does have outside shareholders to consider.

The pay issue could, like the ice- cream that begins to melt, be the first step down the slippery slope to a corporate culture just like any other. And all because they were made to shatter their own idealistic vision. 'Time will tell,' Ben ruefully predicts.

The moral of the tale? Don't make rules you can't stick to. Or you could end up with a faceful of frozen yoghurt.