Ben & Jerry’s is a brand that many of us are familiar with. But, did you know that it started as an ice cream parlour in an abandoned gas station (with $12,000 investment), and grew to a publicly traded corporation with annual sales of over $100 million in less than 15 years? This book traces the inside story of how Ben & Jerry’s evolved from a start-up to a leading, publicly-listed company, yet retained Ben and Jerry’s original vision and remained one of the most innovative, progressive and socially responsible businesses in the world.
In this summary, we’ll touch on the broad milestones of Ben & Jerry’s growth and some of the highlights and insights that we’ve gleaned from their journey. For the full story and details, do get a copy of the book, or get a more detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
This story is told through the eyes of Fred Lager (“Chico”) who was hired in 1982 as the Ben & Jerry’s General Manager, and became President and CEO in 1989. The book gives us a glimpse of how the company started, struggled, and conquered. The story is told till 1994, before Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000. Still, it provides useful insights on how the company grew from a struggling start-up to a successful listed corporation. A fun and inspiring read for ice-cream lovers and entrepreneurs alike :)
Jerry and Ben basically went into business without a real plan, business background nor knowledge of ice-cream making. With a $5 ice-cream making course, a bank loan of $4,000 and $4,000 of savings each, they started Ben & Jerry’s in 1978 with a working capital of just $12,000. This sum of money had to cover their renovations, ice-cream making experiments, and the initial period of operations while they were losing money. Although they had to scrimp, save, and eat leftover food from customers, they happily invested in fun activities for their community like the Free Cone Day and 1-year anniversary gala.
The book traces how they started their wholesale business (and concurrently juggled ice-cream making, sales, delivery, raising money and running the shop), innovated with the first-ever one-pint container sales, and opened the first franchise scoop shop in 1981.
By then, both Jerry and Ben were burnt out, and worried that they were losing their personal values as the business grew bigger. They almost gave up the business, but pushed ahead with the resolution to keep their values alive in and through the business. The book details how they stuck to their roots and unique values in giving back to the community through an unconventional Vermont-IPO, how they ran their campaign against Pillsbury Corporation (owner of Häagen-Dazs) for unfair practices, and how they fought back against another competitor “Steve’s” by personally driving across the country in their “Cowmobile” in a scoopathon to give away free ice-cream.
The book covers example after example of how Ben and Jerry overcame seemingly-impossible challenges with creativity, fun, perseverance and great work ethics. However, by 1988, the company was struggling to keep pace with its explosive growth, and had to deal with issues like organizational development, succession planning and mission clarification and actualization. The book covers these developments in detail, including how social mission was deliberately woven into the company’s fabric and how Ben & Jerry’s eventually stabilized as one of the distinctive market leaders by end 1994.Ben & Jerry’s story brings to life many important lessons and realities behind business startups, growth, culture and branding and what it means to build a company that’s authentically an extension of who you are. In our full book summary, we distill our key takeaways in 6 parts.
For this article, let’s just examine 2 of these related areas:
First, Ben & Jerry managed to stay true to themselves despite their explosive growth and IPO.
• From the onset, the 2 founders were instrumental to the company’s success. Their personal philosophies influenced all aspects of business, and were probably best represented in their quotes on the first Free Cone Day:
“If it’s not fun, why do it?” – Jerry
“Business has a responsibility to give back to the community
from which it draws its support.” – Ben
• The duo worked hard, but also focused on what they enjoyed, and this led them to play to their natural, complementary strengths: Ben was optimistic, entrepreneurial, driven, set uncompromising quality standards, and had great marketing instincts and creativity. However, his perfectionist standards, endless ideas and constant changes made him hard to work with. Jerry was accessible, down-to-earth and loved experimenting with ingredients, making him a great operations chief and ombudsman.
Even their Sales and Marketing efforts were very much an extension of who they were – unpretentious, all-American, socially responsible and a little funky. This gave them a unique niche in the super-premium ice cream segment which, in the 1980s, was characterized by sleek, foreign-sounding brands. For example, they gave away free ice-cream (a recurring theme in their marketing efforts), personally engaged with their customers (e.g. developing new ice cream flavours using customers’ suggested ingredients, personally adding a handwritten not to each customer mail/ enquiry), offered tours of their factory, and used creative, funky ads for their IPO (“Get a scoop of the action!”) and CEO recruitment (‘‘Yo, I’m Your CEO’’ contest). In our full summary, we elaborate on these examples and how their unique brand personality is brought to life.
OTHER DETAILS IN THE BOOK TO LOOK OUT FOR
It is impossible to replicate the vivid anecdotes and humour in the book, and there are many details in the stories that are entertaining and insightful at the same time. You can also get more updates and information at Ben & Jerry’s official website.
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