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Cohen, Bennett R. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Bennett R. Cohen

ice cream jerry’s greenfield

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc.


Bennett R. Cohen’s name makes up one-half of what may be the worlds most beloved ice cream brand. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1998, and some pundits may note that its longevity comes despite Ben and Jerry themselves—two childhood pals from Long Island who have attempted to bring their laid-back, liberal values to their corporation.

Personal Life

Cohen, divorced with one son, was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn in 1951. He met Ben & Jerry cofounder Jerry Greenfield in gym class in a public school in Merrick, Long Island. Both were admitted outcasts and bonded over their shortcomings as enforced athletes. Cohen graduated from Calhoun High in Merrick in the late 1960s, and enrolled in Colgate University, but left school his sophomore year. He studied instead pottery and other crafts at Skidmore College, and later at an institution called University Without Walls.

Career Details

“From the time I was in my teens until I turned 30, I talked to my father about things I planned on doing. He talked me out of them.” Cohen told Marian Christy of the Boston Globe. As a result, Cohen never really decided upon a career goal, and instead took jobs that were interesting learning experiences. “I learned that there are two kinds of bosses, good and bad, and that I worked harder for the boss who trusted me,” he told Christy. He had numerous, and varied, jobs on his resume: in high school he had driven an ice-cream truck, and during his young adult years he worked in a bakery, drove a taxi, guarded a racetrack, flipped burgers at McDonalds, and was even a staff member in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

Cohen’s casual attitude, artistic abilities, and sense of duty eventually led him into a steady job as a crafts teacher at a camp near Saratoga Springs, New York. He had lost touch with his old friend Jerry Greenfield, who had earned a degree from Oberlin College but then met with rejection when he applied to medical school. The pair rekindled their friendship when Greenfield was working in a New York City research laboratory, and decided to open a business together. Cohen had some experience making ice cream at the camp with his students, and he and Greenfield decided that this was a product that almost everybody liked, and did not require expensive equipment to produce.

Cohen and Greenfield combined their $8,000 in savings, borrowed another $4,000, took a Penn State University’s correspondence course in ice-cream-making, and began looking for a location. They liked the college town of Burlington, Vermont, and it lacked an ice cream parlor. With these two requirements, they leased an old gas station there and opened Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in May of 1978. They vowed that if their business went under, they would simply become cross-country truck drivers. From the start, Cohen staffed the counter and took care of the financial side, while Greenfield made the ice cream. They both loved to create new flavors, however. As a kid, Cohen used to mix cookies and candy into his ice cream, and from its earliest days in business Ben & Jerry’s gained a cult following for their delicious and bizarre concoctions.

Their store was extremely popular in Burlington, but Cohen and his partner were admittedly incompetent when it came to finances. After many late nights poring over accounts and receipts, they hired a Burlington bar owner, Fred Chico Lager, to help out. Lager helped the company expand into ice-cream packing operations, and Cohen began delivering the pints to local stores in his Volkswagen station wagon. They opened more stores in New England, and eventually went national with their product and their franchise in the 1980s. Greenfield dropped out of the business for a time when his wife went to college, and by 1985 Cohen was tired of running a very successful company. He tried to sell Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, but had a change of heart, when Greenfield returned to share the burden.

It was at this point that Cohen and Greenfield decided to make the business work according to their principles, instead of altering their values to suit the profit-driven nature of business. It was a radical idea. When they purchased nuts for their ice creams from South America, or blueberries from Maine, they looked to trade directly with the indigenous peoples in the area who often harvested such crops, instead of buying from a corporation in the middle who pocketed most of the profit. In 1992, they launched a Partnershop with a Harlem shelter for homeless men; the store was staffed by residents and its earnings went back into the shelter.

Cohen has taken the occasional sabbatical. He returned the first time and began the 1 percent for Peace campaign in the 1980s, which urged the U.S. federal government to redirect one percent of its budget to positive-minded projects. After a another year off in 1993, he announced plans to look into beginning a graduate business school based on the Ben & Jerry’s ethos.

Cohen resigned as CEO in June of 1994, but remains board chair and still invents new flavors for the famed roster, which includes such experiments as Holy Cannoli! and SMores. Standards in the list remain Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cherry Garcia, and New York Super Fudge Chunk. When he stepped down, the company announced a campaign to replace him they named Yo! I Want to be CEO! Participants were invited to submit in an essay of 100 words or less why they would be the ideal ice-cream company executive.

Cohen devotes a great deal of his time to Businesses for Social Responsibility. He is a founding member of this organization, whose aim is to challenge the way companies do business, and show how profits and ethics are not mutually exclusive areas. A major ice-cream purveyor, Dreyers Grand, offered Cohen and Greenfield a large sum of money to sell Ben & Jerry’s in early 1998, but they declined. The pair still hold 40 percent of voting stock.

Social and Economic Impact

In 1981, Time magazine began a cover story on ice cream with an opening sentence stating that Ben & Jerry’s was the best—in the world. Since then, its cult following has expanded to include not just East-Coast cognoscenti but residents of Israel and the Netherlands; its pints can be purchased in hundreds of thousands of American supermarkets and convenience stores. But its founders have become role models for entrepreneurs interested more in enriching their communities than their bank accounts.

Cohen and Greenfield call their strategy values-led capitalism. Since the mid-1980s, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has received 7.5 percent of the ice cream company’s pre-tax profits; a nine-member advisory board of employees chooses projects and charities that will receive the largesse. They have done much to publicize concerns about Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), used in the milk industry, and for many years purchased from a Vermont dairy that did not use the chemical.

Chronology: Bennett R. Cohen

1951: Born.

1963: Met Jerry Greenfield in gym class.

1978: Opened Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in Vermont.

1981: Opened First franchise.

1985: Established Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.

1987: Published Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book.

1992: Opened first store in Russia.

1995: Retired from CEO position

1998: Declined offer buyout with Greenfield.

Ben & Jerry’s employees may indeed be the happiest workers in the state of Vermont (the companys headquarters have remained in Burlington). It is consistently cited as one of the best companies in America for which to work, and offers workers high wages, generous benefits, and three pints of ice cream to take home for every full workday. Though the ice-cream business has witnessed ups and downs in the 1990s, the company has found community service projects for the workers and kept them on the payroll.

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