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It is four or five questions into our interview and Jerry Greenfield’s arm is around my waist and he is guffawing – generous belly a-wobble – as he chortles: “I like it.”
This does not normally happen when the Financial Times interviews businessmen. But then Mr Greenfield, one half of Ben & Jerry’s, the junior high school buddies from New York who founded the world’s hippest ice-cream company, is not your normal businessman. When I balk at the thin-as-a-whip PR who tries to stop us talking after just 10 minutes, Mr Greenfield extends the near-cuddle and completely disregards the minder.
Similarly, while the counter cultural brand he cofounded is plugged in to every new social media, he doesn’t use Facebook. “It’s nothing philosophical,” he explains
, lest this be taken as a sleight against the new era of rich college dropouts. “I just can’t figure it out.”
Even his job within Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group that bought Ben & Jerry’s 12 years ago, is leisurely. “We’re not involved in management or operations,” he says of the business he and Ben Cohen founded in a renovated petrol station in Burlington, Vermont, 34 years ago. “We have jobs with no authority or responsibility and we get to do anything we want.”
What they want, it transpires, is to pursue their social missions – anything from championing gay marriage (complete with HubbyHubby ice cream in the US and Apple-y Ever After in the UK) to supporting Occupy New York.
This is clearly not a time-intensive pursuit. Mr Greenfield appears to spend most days of the working week in one or other of the company’s Vermont offices “but definitely not eight hours a day”.
Despite working for a group that employs almost 170,000 people and has revenues of more than €40bn, Mr Greenfield remains the antithesis of a pinstripe automaton. He is a hippy at heart who, with Mr Cohen, learnt how
to make ice-cream by doing a $5 correspondence course and now, incongruously, is sitting in London’s ultra-cool private members’ club Soho House flanked by minders so thin they presumably do not even inhale the treat for which he is famous.
Paradox has dogged Ben & Jerry’s too. The company was accused by its fans of “selling out” to big business when it was acquired by Unilever for $326m. “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,’’ Mr Cohen said in a statement at the time, quoting the Grateful Dead, the rock band to whom they paid tribute with their Cherry Garcia flavour, named after the band’s lead guitarist, Jerry.
Ben & Jerry’s bid to limit income disparity has stretched from the initial pledge, whereby the chief executive was paid no more than five times the lowliest scooper. The ratio today is 21 times, which the company says is still well below the 2010 American average of 343 quoted by the website Executive Paywatch.
Income disparity is not the only eyebrow-raising aspect of the sale to Unilever and Mr Greenfield admits it has been a rocky road. “It’s been about 12 years and things now are really good,” he says warmly. “But it’s been up and down. Probably, if you talked to me three or four years ago, I might have been giving you a better story.”
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield complete ice-cream correspondence course from
Penn State university
The pair use $12,000 to open their first ice-cream parlour in Burlington, Vermont
● 1981 First Ben & Jerry’s franchise opens on Route 7 in Shelburne, Vermont
A suit is filed against Pillsbury, Häagen-Dazs’s parent company, after Pillsbury tried to
limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s
● 1985 Ben & Jerry’s Foundation established
Ben & Jerry’s is sold to Unilever for $326m
The irony, of course, is that while Mr Greenfield looks like a cuddly relic from another era – when college kids set up ice-cream parlours rather than billion-dollar technology companies – much of the world of business is slowly catching up with him.
So, when he says, “you cannot have a world where we make enough money to live but all of a sudden we don’t have air to breathe”, you could be forgiven for thinking you are talking to Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive.
Under Mr Polman, Unilever, whose brands include Dove shampoo, Flora margarine and Domestos cleaning products, has been a champion of sustainability: the fair trade espoused by Ben & Jerry’s now extends to a broad range of products and the company has said it will double sales while halving its environmental footprint.
Mr Polman is “a great chief executive”, says Mr Greenfield, and the company “continues to push the limits of what an activist outspoken business can do”.
Echoing Mr Polman, Mr Greenfield also likes to link doing the right thing with financial performance. “The more caring and giving Ben & Jerry’s has been, the more successful it’s become,” he claims. “Ben would tell you it’s a spiritual law: as you give, so you receive.”
Mr Greenfield wants to keep on giving, and he reckons the internet has made it easier for socially minded entrepreneurs. “We didn’t know what a PC was,” he says, describing how he and Mr Cohen chose where to go to college by hunching over an almanac and atlas and writing up lists. “Now there are opportunities to connect people on issues.”
The issues that concern him may have new names but they have their roots in the campaigns that existed when he started out: income equality, now as part of the Occupy movement; and equal rights, most recently in favour of gay marriage.
Mr Greenfield is also keen on nurturing the next generation of business founders. Hence his latest campaign – and the reason he is in London – designed to award entrepreneurs who come up with “cool new models for sustainable businesses” with a (modest) cash prize and the chance to have their brand’s name immortalised on a tub of his ice-cream.
With Ben & Jerry’s on a roll and the issues piling up on a daily basis, being an ice-cream maker with a mission could be one of the most bankable (and karma friendly) businesses on the planet. And, as if to prove the point, like a Hollywood star on a promotional tour, the hippy businessman who is Jerry Greenfield is wooing the press. Outside the interview room, the long queue of supplicants only reinforces the idea: the laughing Buddha, with the magic recipe for ice-cream and life, awaits within.