Ben & Jerry’s turns 25

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston reflects on 25 years of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

(McQuiston) David Letterman, the ultimate TV weisenheimer, went to the Haagen-Daaz warehouse in New Jersey one time. He found a guy on the loading dock and asked where the cows were. “The cows?” the guy said. “I don’t know where cows are.”

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade just turned 25 years old, and you know where the cows are. That’s been the difference between the two super-premium ice cream giants. They both make great ice cream. And they are by far the two biggest players in the marketplace. But it’s Vermont that distinguishes Ben & Jerry’s.

Now, that’s not to diminish the hippie ideal Ben & Jerry’s has nurtured. After all, it came from the heart. Nor can Lyn Severance’s graphic design be underestimated. Next to Nike, is there a more recognizable corporate logo? I think not. And their timing was great, and sheer dumb luck. But take Vermont out of the equation and all they would have had is a great boutique product with a kitschy image.

Who knows, or cares, where Haagen-Daaz is made? It’s probably made all over the place. But Ben & Jerry’s ice cream comes from Vermont. That’s its greatest strength, and greatest weakness.

Stuck way up here in the Northeast, it’s hard to ship those hard pints of ice cream to grocery stores across the country. At one point, they tried shipping just the milk to Indiana and making the ice cream there. Remember that? But it didn’t work out financially.

Europe is the next great market for Ben & Jerry’s. That’s what new owner and multi-national conglomerate Unilever is banking on. If Haagen-Daaz can do well overseas, there’s no reason Ben & Jerry’s can’t either. The Vermont thing won’t matter to Europeans, but with the Iraqi war and all, a little anti-destablishmentarinism attitude is back in fashion over there.

In ’84, in order to raise money to grow the company, Ben & Jerry’s went public. At that moment, they lost future control of the company. They had to, by law, do what was best for the shareholders. And the shareholders should be well pleased. Sales went from four million in 1984 to 47.5 million in 1988, the year President Reagan presented the boys with the Small Business of the Year Award in a Rose Garden ceremony. Reagan, Ben and Jerry. Only Nixon could’ve made it a more perfect picture. In April of 2000 Unilever paid $326 million for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade. And the shareholders? They made a whopping $43.60 a share. Not a bad dish of ice cream, not at all.

But what about Ben and Jerry themselves? Sure, they made big cookie dough on this deal too. But for them it was always about something bigger. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield became what everyone from the ’60s wanted to become a metaphor. Now what are ya gonna do?

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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