Ben & Jerry Co-Founder Threatens to Quit : LUSENET : Unk's Wild Wild West : One Thread

Ben & Jerry Co-Founder Threatens to Quit
By Tim McLaughlin

BOSTON (Reuters) - Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., said on Friday he will quit the ice cream company unless its new corporate parent Unilever names a co-chief executive steeped in the company's social mission.

Unilever NV/Plc (ULVR.L)(UNc.AS) rejected the CEO candidate Cohen and co-founder Jerry Greenfield backed for the top spot at the South Burlington, Vt.-based ice cream maker. When Cohen proposed a co-CEO be appointed, one of Unilever's co-chairman rejected the idea, he said.

"He told me, 'I'm a co-CEO, Ben, and I can tell you it doesn't work,"' Cohen told Reuters. He declined to name the Unilever co-chairman he spoke with about the proposal.

While Unilever officials said the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate remains committed to Ben & Jerry's philanthropy, the falling out with Cohen threatens to dilute a brand name closely linked with iconoclastic and socially conscious ideals.

"In order for me to stay with the company, Unilever would need to put in someone like Pierre Ferarri (a long-time Ben & Jerry's director) as co-CEO," Cohen said. "Otherwise, I'm not interested in hanging around and supporting what I'm sure is a destruction of the company."

Known for flavors such as "Cherry Garcia" and "Chunky Monkey," Ben & Jerry's new chief executive is Frenchman Yves Couette, a veteran ice cream executive of Unilever, the world's largest ice cream maker. Unilever agreed in April to buy Ben & Jerry's for $326 million.

"I was never in favor of selling the company," said Cohen, who was the company's largest shareholder. "Unilever made a lot of representations and said they would be daft to hire someone as CEO that Jerry and I didn't support. ... I thought we could influence the social mission of Unilever. I gave them the benefit of the doubt at the time."

While Cohen and Greenfield still are employed by the company, they are not involved in its day-to-day operations. Ben & Jerry's advisory board backed Ferarri as the new CEO, Cohen said. Greenfield is not on that board.

Unilever spokesman Steve Milton said the company is dedicated to ensuring Ben & Jerry's brand name and delivering on social commitments such as contributing 7.5 percent of pretax profits to philanthropy.

He also said Ben & Jerry's current chief executive Perry Odak was not pushed out the door by Unilever.

"He's leaving because he wants to do something else," Milton said.

Milton said Cohen discussed his co-CEO idea with Unilever Co-Chairman Antony Burgmans, but it was not a formal proposal. He acknowledged Burgmans rejected the idea, though.

"If we did anything to endanger the social mission, we'd be hurting the business," Milton said. "That would be reckless. We want people to judge us by our actions."

Cohen said the appointment of Couette shows Unilever already is taking Ben & Jerry's toward "the mainstream average and away from the ideals that made Ben & Jerry's what it is."

Cohen also said Couette, who replaces Odak in January, will have a hard time learning Ben & Jerry's culture.

"I think Unilever is under the impression that the guy will just learn it when he comes in," Cohen said. "I don't think that's possible. It's just a totally different business mentality."

Milton said Cohen hasn't given Couette a chance to demonstrate his commitment to Ben & Jerry's ideals.

"We understand (Ben's) concerns," Milton said. "The problem is that Yves doesn't start at the company until January and he's only met Ben once. We want Ben and Yves to sit down and eat some ice cream together."

-- Dr. Pibb (, December 06, 2000



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