Book Review: Ben & Jerry’s, The Inside Scoop

By Chris Wendel

Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop

How Two Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor

(Four of Five Stars)

276 pages  Softcover $14.95, eBook edition $11.95

Entrepreneurship has become a popular movement in recent years. Perhaps it’s a quest for wealth driven by the niche market internet era we live in, or the latest renewal of the American dream. Regardless, it’s difficult to imagine the late 1970s, when it was somewhat uncommon to strike out on one’s own and start a business.

Uncommon is the word to describe Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry Ice Cream. As an alternative to unemployment and underemployment, Cohen and Greenfield started their business after mail ordering a correspondence course on how to make ice cream. At that point in time, Cohen and Greenfield thought that renovating an old gas station and turning it into a small ice cream stand would be a nice summer project. Where it went from there, they had no clue.

In the book “Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop”, author Fred “Chico” Lager tells the tale of Cohen and Greenfield’s phenomenal success that occurred despite their lack of business experience. Lager was Ben & Jerry’s first true financial manager and essentially ran the company during its years of rampant growth, taking it from a fledgling startup to a large corporation.

Although Cohen and Greenfield fall into the category of “accidental entrepreneurs,” their uncompromising will to making a high quality product was no fluke and the guerilla marketing skills they devise when taking on the mega distributors of the ice cream world were brilliant. And there’s the always present Ben & Jerry’s trademark sense of humor.

The challenge for Cohen, in particular, is remaining true to the in-built social mission that Ben & Jerry’s will not concede when the company’s sales continue to explode. Causing major angst to now chief operating officer Lager, Cohen and Greenfield also step in and out of the company several times during the company’s first 10 years, in an effort to balance their egos and ambitions.

When he is in charge, Cohen insists on creating a company culture that is fair to employees and gives back to social and environmentally causes. His determination that the highest paid person in the company never makes more than five times more than an entry level employee remains imperative to Cohen. This policy proved troublesome years later when Ben & Jerry’s is a publicly traded company and the self-imposed salary limit prevents it from attracting a high level, qualified marketing director.

Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to meet Chico Lager when he was the featured speaker at an event in Traverse City. He talked of those early days in the original Ben & Jerry’s office shortly after being hired by Cohen and Greenfield as their business manager. On day one Lager discovered a file cabinet crammed full of unpaid bills, unopened correspondence, and even an IRS refund check that Jerry Greenfield had never opened and cashed. Lager said that in many ways it was miraculous that Cohen and Greenfield ever succeeded at all.

Highlighting classic business mistakes and unusual success,“Ben & Jerry’s, The Inside Scoop” is a realistic manual for the business owner who wants a front row seat to experience what astronomical growth and the resulting growing pains are like. What Ben and Jerry lack in business acumen they make up for with innovative thinking that pioneered ideas such as environmentally friendly packaging and crowdfunding financing – both now more accepted business practices. When it’s all said and done, Cohen and Greenfield do it their way and change forever the way we think of ice cream.

Republished in 2011, “Ben & Jerry’s, The Inside Scoop” holds up extremely well over time, placing it in the category of essential reading (along with “Growing a Business” by Paul Hawken and the “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber) for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business managers.

Chris Wendel is with Northern Initiative in Traverse City. Based in Marquette, Mich., Northern Initiatives provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information and new markets.