Double Trouble: Why Ben has gone Totally Nuts with his partner in cream Jerry

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mr Cohen and Mr Greenfield are not getting on. There are divergences of corporate vision, and underlying philosophical differences. Or to put it another way, Ben and Jerry, the hippy capitalists behind the world-famous ice cream company, seem to have fallen out.

The firm that gave the world Chunky Monkey is apparently heading for a (banana) split. And if you think that Ben and Unilever's sounds just a little less funky, well, so does Jerry.

The company may be sold in part to the Anglo-Dutch behemoth whose fine product range includes Domestos and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Mr Cohen (Ben, the fat balding one with the little round glasses and the beard) is tucking in merrily; Mr Greenfield (Jerry, the fat balding one with little round glasses and no beard) is not.

After market speculation yesterday, the company confirmed that it was holding discussions with Unilever on a deal that would in effect take it private, while noting that there were "a number of unresolved issues". The biggest of these, for Mr Greenfield as well as many consumers and employees, is whether the firm will keep its self-appointed mission to blend dessert with social justice.

Ben and Jerry's, which started life in a converted petrol station in Vermont back in 1978, is renowned for its conscience. It pioneered the concept of the "double bottom line", making profits while promoting good. Its milk comes from local farms and is hormone free.

The company denies emphatically that there is any difference between the pair. A spokeswoman said she spoke with Mr Greenfield, and "he emphatically stated there is absolutely no truth to a rumour of a rift between Jerry and Ben". But Mr Greenfield has left no doubt that if it were his choice, he wouldn't sell.

"My personal belief is that the long-term value of the stockholders is best maintained by keeping the company independent," he told a local college recently.

But there is a problem. As Unilever might put it, I Can't Believe It Isn't Making (much) Money. The company's commercial nous has not quite matched its talent for philanthropy and self-promotion, and the board of the company has a duty to shareholders. "It isthe directors' responsibility to make decisions that maximise shareholder return in theshort-term," Mr Greenfield said.

Unilever was one of four companies interested in the company. Diageo, another British company, was also in there. It owns Haagen-Dazs, which in hippy ice-cream terms represents the "Dark Side of the Force". So was Italy's Roncadin, and Nestle. But Unilever seems to have come up with the best offer.

Under the deal, Mr Cohen, who owns about a million shares in Ben & Jerry's, would have about 36 per cent of the company. This would make him a very wealthy man, although precisely how wealthy is uncertain until the company's market capitalisation is determined. About the same proportion would be held by Meadowbrook Lane Capital, a group of ethical investors which is reported to include Anita Roddick of the Body Shop. Unilever would take 28 per cent. Mr Greenfield would be out.

News of the deal has been simmering for months, causing great anxiety among consumers and franchisees of the company's Scoop Shops. One of the websites devoted to saving the firm says: "Unfortunately, today, gigantic multinational companies are trying to take advantage of Ben & Jerry's undervalued stock price... They want to skin the company alive and use its gentle lambskin brand identity to fool unsuspecting consumers into purchasing their soulless profit-driven products."

The Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, has also expressed his displeasure. "This company has really come to symbolise Vermont to the country and the world," he said. "It would be a shame if it were sucked into the corporate homogenisation that's taking over the planet."

In part, it is the excellence of the ice cream that has brought the company so close to the hearts of Americans. Its flavours, all quirkily named, appeal to the hippy that lies within many baby boomers, and a tub of Phish Food, Wavy Gravy or Chubby Hubby has long been a standard fixture for many freezer compartments.

But it is the continuation of the company's moral mission that most concerns onlookers. "We support projects which are models for social change - projects which exhibit creative problem solving and hopefulness," says the company. It gives away cash through the Ben and Jerry's Foundation, and employs disadvantaged people. They even helped develop a solar-powered cart from which dollops of the good stuff could be sold.

And then there is the question of style. Its annual general meetings are more Woodstock than Wall Street. "Ben & Jerry's board of directors can't think of a better way to conduct a publicly held business than by boldly breaching the boundaries of the boardroom itself - holding annual meetings in a mountain meadow, stakeholders staked out under a tent, seconding motions between scoops of the action, fielding a forum (with casual decorum), and finally, by throwing a party by proxy, with ice cream for all," the company says.

The driving force behind the sale seems to be the company's chief executive officer, the somewhat sinister-sounding Perry Odak. Mr Odak, with a background in a variety of manufacturing companies, has tried to put the company on a a sounder commercial footing. Fans might have become suspicious when they discovered that Mr Odak's previous employment was with the US Repeating Arms Co, a gun manufacturer.

But with the company's financial performance considerably less impressive than its charitable endeavours, a change of ownership seems inevitable. The Unilever offer, if confirmed, would make a lot of people very wealthy, even if that wasn't the idea when Ben and Jerry started things off back in the days when they still had all their own hair.

The end of Ben and Jerry seems unlikely to be pretty, however. Fans have been buying shares in an attempt to keep the corporate predators away, demonstrations have been held and more protests are likely in Vermont and across America. The ice-cream war is only just beginning.

The two have known each other since childhood. They grew up together on Long Island, "where they were the two slowest, fattest kids in the gym class", according to the official biography. They first met in 1963 when they were both trying to make it around the running track at their high school. The gym teacher told them that if they didn't make a mile in seven minutes, they'd have to try again. "Gee, coach," Ben said, "if I don't do it in under seven minutes the first time, I'm certainly not going to do it in under seven minutes the second time." Which, apparently, led Jerry to conclude that "this was a real thinker".

They met up again in the 1970s, and set about conquering the ice-cream market - first Vermont, then the world, becoming the only frozen dessert company to take a stance on the Cold War.