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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Brad Edmondson, Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s

Welcome Brad Edmondson ( (Twitter) and Host Rodney North (Equal Exchange) (Twitter)

Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s

(Disclaimer: Rodney North is a member of the worker co-operative, Equal Exchange, which sells a small amount of delicious, Fair Trade bananas to Ben & Jerry’s, for use in their Chunky Monkey ice cream.)

Like many back in the 1980’s I was an early and enthusiastic convert to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The taste was, of course, great and the funky flavors & funny names couldn’t be found anywhere else. I was charmed by the light-hearted fun, in fact, joyous aura around the products and the business. Pretty soon it sunk in that this ice cream wasn’t just a tasty, belt-busting treat but also it was made at a cool, decidedly un-corporate enterprise in bucolic Vermont, by real people who shared a lot of my values. Furthermore they were actually eager to espouse their (& my) values. How bizarre & refreshing was that?!

Long before you or I ever heard of terms like “socially responsible business”, or “corporate citizenship” or “Fair Trade” I learned that there were these two counter-culture guys, Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, who had seemed to bring it all together: great products, a profitable & rapidly growing business, PLUS an authentic, demonstrable sense of fairness and decency that was otherwise so palpably missing from American business. It was no wonder that they became beloved, and in the eyes of many, an icon of what a business could and should be.

That part of the story I knew before I read Brad Edmondson’s Ice Cream Social.

And probably, like you, I also knew how later on something went terribly wrong. Somehow the founders lost control of their company. The stock they had issued to help grow the company had ‘let the camel’s nose under the tent flap’ and pretty quickly outsiders were in the driver’s seat. For fans of the company, like me, it seemed like a bolt out of the blue when it was announced that Ben & Jerry’s was for sale. The winning bidder was Unilever, a foreign multi-national and one of the biggest food conglomerates in the world. That couldn’t be good and it seemed the dream was over.

Were cynics right? Was there something inherently mutually exclusive between scaling up a business AND holding to the kind of ideals that had made Ben & Jerry’s famous? And what did happen to the company after it was swallowed by Unilever anyway? After the sale it seemed that the media just moved on and didn’t look back. That left so many unanswered questions, not least “Did things really go downhill like many of us feared they would?”

This is where Ice Cream Social makes such a great contribution. It not only fleshes out the heady, early years of Ben & Jerry’s meteoric rise, but also all that followed – right through to today – warts and all. It’s essential that this was an independent effort and is not a company approved history. To the credit of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever Brad had excellent access to current and former staff, and to important documents. Interestingly, neither Ben Cohen nor Jerry Greenfield chose to participate, but somehow the book doesn’t seem any less for that – thanks to the abundance of interviews with nearly everyone else involved at the various key junctures in the company’s journey. [cont’d.]

If you hold out hope that businesses can actually be part of the solution (and I sincerely hope you do) then what Ben & Jerry’s accomplished, and later lost, and still later on regained, should interest you. But what’s more important – and what Brad Edmondson has made public for the first time ever – are critical details behind the headlines.

For example, Brad helps reveal how on the heels of their totally unexpected and disorientating success the founders, and the other key managers, repeatedly found themselves in uncharted territory and often in over their heads. The strains, stresses and temptations of their rapid growth led to hard choices and not a few mistakes. Sometimes Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield and the others in the young company found themselves boxed into a corner that compelled them to violate one or another cherished principle. Other times they accidentally put themselves into such a corner. Sometimes they didn’t even realize the import of their actions until it was too late to reverse course.

Brad tells us in great, flesh & blood detail about the rise, fall, and return of Ben & Jerry’s; and what the long, exciting, sometimes depressing saga has to teach us about the capacity for business to be a force for good in our lives.

Before I read Ice Cream Social I believed that Ben & Jerry’s offered two seminal ‘case studies’ for anyone interested in conducting business with a soul. One, they created and led a wildly successful & popular company that demonstrated how to run a business like a decent, generous human being. Two, they provided an important, albeit sad, cautionary tale about how a magical creation – like B & J– can be lost in the jungles of the world of high-stakes business.

After reading Ice Cream Social I’m pleased to say that Ben & Jerry’s (& Unilever) now offer two more critical lessons.

•How a ‘good’ company can regain its decency and its values.

•That even inside a massive corporation like Unilever it is possible (even if still rare) for an aspirational entity like Ben & Jerry’s to operate in the way that excited so many of us for so long.

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