One of the dividends of owning stock in the Ben & Jerry's Homemade ice cream company is being invited to the annual stockholder's meeting. This gives you an excuse to eat lots of ice cream, check out Ben & Jerry's 40-foot solarized stage bus and then spend two days listening to the Band, Bo Diddley, Michelle Shocked and the Kwanzaa Music Workshop Performance, among many other acts, play at the Ben & Jerry's One World One Heart festival. You also get to attend the financial meeting. Here, one company co-founder might lead the investors in a hymn while the other makes a point about product standards by splitting open a pint of ice cream with a samurai sword.
As the minutes of its official meeting would indicate, Ben & Jerry's still hews closely to a guiding principle co-founder Jerry Greenfield uttered in 1978, soon after he and Ben Cohen cranked their first gallon of ice cream in a converted Burlington, Vt., garage: "If it's not fun, why do it?" And that corporate philosophy, along with a social conscience and a line of uncommonly wicked ice cream products, attracts a unique kind of investor to these meetings. Like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's investors are prone to message T-shirts, beards and glasses. They are educated, middle- to upper-middle-class professionals who load the kids into the Volvo and drive to the Ben & Jerry's gathering at the Sugarbush Ski Resort in Warren, Vt., confident that the shouts of playing children and even a crying infant will not be frowned upon during the chairman's big speech.
And when it's their turn to address questions to the board of directors, Ben & Jerry's investors are less likely to raise financial details than to suggest a new flavor their daughter thought up. Or wonder if the company might develop sugar-free ice cream for diabetics. Or request that a funny story about the company's past be repeated for everyone's benefit. Even in a year marked by stalled market growth, flattened profits and a dizzying 50% drop in share price, the only investor to mention the declining value of her Ben & Jerry's stock at the annual meeting last June was the New York City school teacher who haltingly expressed her gratitude for "the privilege of supporting this company."
As the stockholders made clear, their investment in this ice cream company has less to do with its profitability than how it goes about making its profits. What Ben & Jerry's offers its investors is the chance to buy into a company that reminds them of themselves. A company that is innovative and impassioned about its product, but also values-driven. A company with a free-wheeling sense of humor, but also a serious commitment to its community. Business on a human scale, in other words. But how long can this go on?
Now a $150-million corporation that produces the leading super-premium brand of ice cream in the United States, Ben & Jerry's has long since edged into the realm of big business. So far, the company has maintained its human connection, thanks in large part to the warm, community-friendly vision of its co-founders. But now Cohen and Greenfield are stepping back from their company's daily operations, making room for a new chief executive whose background in traditional business will, they hope, help streamline the company's often troubled internal management and allow it to adjust to shrinking domestic demand by pursuing previously untapped markets in Europe and Asia.
Wall Street analysts applaud Ben & Jerry's new willingness to professionalize their operation. What's less clear is how the new company will feel to its original and most loyal constituency--the customers who value its high-touch funkiness. Will the pressures wrought by success force the company to sacrifice the non-corporate values that made it so appealing?
Ben & Jerry's isn't the only formerly small socially responsible company whose mainstream success threatens to hoist it upon its own ethical petard. The Patagonia outdoor equipment company defines itself by a rigid commitment to environmentalism, yet many of its most popular, innovative garments start life as heavily processed raw materials. Acknowledging this paradox in 1991, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard decided to put the brakes on his company's growth. "Most of the evils in this world," he warns, "are caused by unlimited growth." However, this is not an opinion shared by Seattle coffee baron Howard Schultz, who believes his expanding chain of Starbucks coffee bars can push a vision of corporate responsibility and worker empowerment across the nation.