Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., the iconoclastic and socially conscious ice cream maker, said Thursday that a former executive of the company that makes Winchester rifles will become its new chief executive.
Perry Odak, 51, who has a quarter of a century's experience with a number of manufacturers of consumer products, will succeed Robert Holland Jr., who resigned in the fall after less than two years as CEO of the South Burlington, Vt.-based company. When he left, Holland said the job should go to someone with more marketing experience.
"I think there's a real opportunity for this company to regain its momentum and move forward despite the [competitive] market," Odak told Reuters.
Wall Street greeted the news by sending shares of Ben & Jerry's, which have been battered over the last year, up 87.5 cents to close at $11.75 in Nasdaq trading.
Odak will receive $300,000 a year as a base salary. His stock option plan allows him, at certain intervals over the next six years, to buy 360,000 Ben & Jerry's shares at a price of $10.88 each, company spokesman Rob Michalak said. He can speed up the options' vesting if certain financial and nonfinancial objectives are met.
Odak's last job was in senior management at US Repeating Arms & Browning, maker of firearms and sporting goods. He worked his way up through Armour-Dial's food division in the 1970s and was the company's senior vice president for worldwide operations when he left. After that, he served as a general manager at fragrance company Jovan Inc.
He worked as president of the consumer products group at video game maker Atari in 1982. Later, he worked as chief executive at container maker Graham Packaging and as chief operating officer of Color Tile Inc., a home-improvement store chain that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a year ago.
Odak also worked for merchant bank Investcorp International, where he helped foods company Dellwood Foods complete its buyout of Tuscan Dairy.
Analysts were enthusiastic about Odak's experience but were surprised that Ben & Jerry's, which donates part of the profit from its Peace Pops and other products to anti-handgun organizations, would hire a former executive of a rifle manufacturer.
"Going from guns to Peace Pops is a pretty drastic step," said one analyst, who declined to be identified.
Co-founder and Chairman Ben Cohen, who's often dressed in a T-shirt and jeans at company functions, reportedly disagreed with Holland's decision to sell Ben & Jerry's in France because of that country's decision not to sign a nuclear test-ban treaty. But Cohen said in an interview that Odak's background is not a problem.
"We spent a long time talking about the social mission of the company, and Perry is very much aligned with that social mission," Cohen said. "Our company in the past has taken a stance against handgun violence and in favor of handgun control, and Perry very much agrees with those stands."
Odak joins a company that has been unsuccessful recently at capitalizing on its strong brand name to grow market share.
The super-premium ice cream category has been flat for years as consumers have turned to low-fat and no-fat desserts, and Ben & Jerry's has been losing market share to Grand Metropolitan's Haagen-Dazs.
South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry's announced last fall that it would report a loss of from 13 cents to 17 cents a share in the seasonally weak fourth quarter due to competition from Haagen-Dazs and costs from promotions and the expansion into Europe.
In the previous year's fourth quarter, Ben & Jerry's posted a profit of $859,000, or 12 cents a share.
Analysts also questioned Odak's commitment to Ben & Jerry's since he changed jobs many times in the past. However, Odak said he signed a three-year agreement with the company and, unlike his predecessor, planned to move to Vermont from his home in York, Pa.
Odak declined to talk about Ben & Jerry's plans to grow, but stressed his experience working overseas and with entrepreneurial owners.
"I understand transitions, and I believe I am good at working with companies through transitions. This company is going through a transition, being very entrepreneurial to having more of balance . . . inside the company," he said.