So Unilever has gobbled up Ben & Jerry's. The $45 billion megacompany that rose
from the British and Dutch colonial empires (turning palm and coconut oil into
soap and margarine) has acquired Vermont's outrageous little ice cream maker for
$326 million. The American dream at work. A couple of hippies invent wild new
ice cream flavors in their garage and end up multimillionaires.
There are so many different ways to take this news:
- Well, I guess the New York Super Fudge Chunk will still taste just as good.
- Heck, why did I sell at 13? (Unilever is paying a whopping $43.60 per share.)
- Whoa, I wonder how long my job will last. (Unilever has announced its
intention to shed 25,000 workers worldwide over the next five years. Ben &
Jerry's CEO Perry Odak announced at the press conference that the multinational
will continue to make Ben & Jerry's products only in Vermont "at least for now"
and will even keep up the amazing fringe benefit of three free pints per
employee per day. Antony Burgmans, a Unilever co-chair is quoted in the Wall
Street Journal as saying with regard to Ben & Jerry's, "For two years there will
be no layoffs.")
- What will happen to the Ben & Jerry's Foundation? (As a condition of the
deal, Unilever will continue giving away 7.5 percent of all pre-tax profits and
will contribute an up-front $5 million to the foundation -- plus another $5
million for minority-owned business startups and yet another $5 million to
employees. What the Foundation will fund in the future remains, of course, to
- So much for social responsibility (such as paying dairy farmers a premium).
- So much for irreverence (the infamous "what's the Doughboy afraid of?" campaign,
making public fun of competitor Pillsbury, when it tried to use corporate muscle
to push Ben & Jerry's off supermarket shelves). So much for freedom (refusing
to use milk produced with bovine growth hormone in spite of Monsanto's threats).
So much for fun. (Friday afternoon back massages for the staff. Free scoop
days. The world's craziest stockholder meetings.) The engulfed Ben & Jerry's
will still have its own board, including both Ben and Jerry, but can you imagine
such unconventionality within the Unilever corporate culture?
Truth is, the freewheeling Ben & Jerry's has been less free since going public
and growing big enough to bring in professional managers. In order to attract
those managers, the company said it had to sacrifice its self-imposed limit on
the gap between its lowest and highest compensation rates. That's when we all
knew the point had been crossed, the awful point beyond which a business has to
make serious tradeoffs between getting bigger and sticking to its principles.
But who's to say the upstart David can't transform the multinational Goliath,
rather than the other way around? Vermont's lone congressman, Bernie Sanders,
at least holds out the possibility: "My hope is that ... Unilever will change
its position on agricultural issues and advocate for policies in Washington and
elsewhere that preserve family farming in Vermont, instead of policies that
drive family farmers off the land." And Ben, the very Ben Cohen himself,
reportedly was hooked when a Unilever executive looked him in the eye and said,
"Ben, do you realize the opportunity you have here to help this company grow in
its social commitment?"
I try hard not to be a cynic, so I'll challenge Unilever not to give me and
everyone else the excuse to do so. I will believe that a huge corporation can
be principled if Ben & Jerry's continues to refuse to use milk produced with
bovine growth hormone. And if, as Unilever's advertising clout swells the
market for Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, milk will be bought in Mexico or Brazil
at a price that lets small farmers keep farming -- and does not undercut farmers
in Vermont. And if, as Chunky Monkey starts being made in Mexico and Brazil,
workers there get paid enough to raise their families in safety and dignity --
and do not undercut workers in Vermont. And if, as they wash out Phish Food
vats in any part of the world, they meet Vermont standards about not letting
that wastewater pollute the phish ... fish.
Of course I fear there's not a Triple Caramel Chunk's chance in hell of any of
this happening. Most Ben and Jerry's stockholders prided themselves on their
social responsibility (and made out well in the end anyway). Unilever will have
to find such stockholders, or educate them, or do the right thing in spite of
Maybe there's a chance. Ben and Jerry and Unilever, I wish you success,
measured in more than money. But if it doesn't work, if five or twenty years
from now there's nothing more than a Ben & Jerry's historical marker in Vermont,
maybe we will be willing to rethink the system that rewards corporations for
seeking the cheapest raw materials, workers, and environmental standards in
order to produce the fastest growth. Maybe, instead of being cynics, we'll
become activists in forging a corporate environment that measures success, as
Ben and Jerry's did, in more than money.