News and Tribune


February 23, 2012

Talking about sweet success: Ben & Jerry’s co-founder speaks at IU Southeast

NEW ALBANY — Jerry Greenfield, a founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream said it was hard times and tough breaks that led him and his partner, Ben Cohen, to create their company — and a cultural phenomenon

Both men did not have much success after college. Greenfield graduated in four years but was never accepted into medical school. Cohen never graduated from college. They both went through several jobs before moving in together and creating Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

“It was failing at everything we tried to do that led us to the ice cream business,” Greenfield said as the keynote speaker for the annual Sanders Speakers Series at Indiana University Southeast on Tuesday. Greenfield spoke about how he turned a small ice cream parlor into a multimillion-dollar ice cream empire.

“We opened the parlor in [1978 in] Vermont because there was not an ice cream parlor around and we figured we would have better luck without any competition,” Greenfield said.

He was 26 when the business began.

During the summer, business was good, but when the winter came times were tough. They sold the ice cream to local restaurants, grocery stores and local distributors. Cohen also had a van he drove around with ice cream in the back to sell to people in the area. Two distributors carried Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

“It was the first time we weren’t the local guys,” Greenfield said.

A problem arose when Pillsbury threatened to quit using those distributors if they didn’t stop distributing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Greenfield thought about suing Pillsbury, but instead he started the “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of” campaign. Greenfield was part of a one-person picket line. He had ads on the back of Rolling Stone magazines, signs on transit buses and a hotline number on the pints of Ben & Jerry’s products.

Pillsbury backed down and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was able to be distributed all of the country.

“The definition of business is a combination of organized human energy plus money that equals power,” Greenfield said.

He said most businesses act selfishly. It is the goal of Ben & Jerry’s to have a spiritual aspect. Greenfield, 60, said if the business supports the community the community will support the business.  

“In the old days, Ben came up with all of the names for the different flavors,” Greenfield said.

The first flavor they sold was vanilla.

“He would create the different flavors and name them and I would make them,” Greenfield said.

Now, there is a team of five to six people who work on new flavors all of the time. Greenfield’s personal favorite flavor is American Dream.

“Some of the best flavors come from customers, such as Chunky Monkey,” Greenfield said.

Most of the new flavors do not come out of the lab.

“Many are called but few are chosen, and in this case many are cold few but few are frozen,” Greenfield joked.

Although they have different opinions on the types of ice cream, Ben and Jerry have managed to stay friends throughout the run of the business.

“We both have complete trust in each other,” Greenfield said.

Cohen believed everybody wanted big chunks in their ice cream, whereas Greenfield believed everybody wanted a lot of little chunks.

“Ben cannot taste or smell anything, so the different textures in the ice cream help to distinguish the flavors,” Greenfield said.

They combined their ideas and created an ice cream that has a lot of cream, little air and a lot of big chunks in the ice cream.

Greenfield used the marketing technique of connecting and communicating with customers to create such a large industry.

“People referred to Ben and I as old hippies,” Greenfield said. “If being hippies means peace love and taking care of your neighbors, then that’s OK with me.”  

In 2000, Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s.

“We didn’t want to sell because the company had its own view on things, but Unilever offered so much money we didn’t have a choice,” Greenfield said.

He remains the president of the company.

Matt Murry, a junior in marketing and management at IU Southeast said he loved that Greenfield was 26 when he started the business.

“It showed me that even though I didn’t get started right out of high school, there is still hope in having a successful career,” Murry said. “The speech was very well done and of professional magnitude, yet casual at the same time.”

— Tiffany Adams is a freelancer reporter who attends Indiana University Southeast.

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