story and photos by Kim Souza
It’s a long way from Burlington, Vt., to Springdale, but the communities do have something in common, according to Ben & Jerry’s chairman Jeff Furman. Both areas are rich with businesses that invest in building community spirit.
“I want to know how I get a Jones Center in my community,” Furman said as he took the stage Tuesday (Jan. 28) as part of the Serve2perform.com speaker series, hosted at the Jones Center by the local start-up Grandslam Performance Associates (GPA).
Furman was one of the three founders of Ben & Jerry’s and quite comfortable to the represent the “&” in the company brand name. He served as legal counsel for his friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield who took a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making from Penn State University in 1978, tweaked a business plan from a pizza operation, pulled together $8,000 in savings and a $4,000 bank loan to open the first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop.
He said by the mid 1980s the company was struggling as none of the three had any real business expertise but they decided it was time for a change and they decided to run the business differently – in a socially responsible way.
In a interesting move the company raised needed capital by selling shares to citizens of Vermont, because they wanted to bring the community inside where together they could lobby for change as well as operate in a sustainable fashion.
“Businesses have a responsibility to give back to the world. What we do matters, it does make a difference. If you believe in it, speak up about it, or what’s the use in believing,” Furman said.
Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim said people always want to know if being socially responsible really makes money. Solheim joined Ben & Jerry’s in 2010 and shared his insights on the unique business plan during the Serve2perform.com event Tuesday.
“Today we are a really big business operating under Unilever and an unusual board arrangement allows us to continue much the way we always have, with our focus on social change,” Solheim said.
He said while some may see a value-based businesses as a houseboat, not really a good business, nor a good boat, that is not the philosophy at Ben & Jerry’s.
“We’re a sail boat. We can sail around the world without refueling as we are 100% sustainable in our operations. Ben & Jerry’s is one of the best performing ice cream companies in the world — top line and bottom line,” Solheim said.
He said Ben & Jerry’s exists to bring the power of business to the social and environmental justice struggle. Without that focus, the business would have closed long ago. Solheim said one important key to the company’s success has been the passion and shared vision of the founders.
He said people often ask him why the serious purpose and the wacky, silly names for the ice cream flavors, as the two seem at odds. He answers that fun is a main ingredient in the company's day-to-day recipe for success.
“We make sure the people who make the ice cream, supply the raw materials and distribute the product also share our vision,” he said.
One of the proudest accomplishments Furman has is the company’s stance on worker pay. He said the average pay for an ice cream maker in Vermont is roughly $16 per hour, nearly twice the minimum wage.
“I have always advocated for paying a livable wage because it makes a difference,” Furman said. “We work with suppliers and franchisees that also share our same values.”
Solheim said often when people get upset by a position or stance the company makes on a social issue, the more ice cream they sell.
“We were delighted to get Jostein Solheim and Jeff Furman to launch our speaker series. Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2001, was the sponsoring company that made it happen,” said GPA founder and CEO Adam Arroyos.
He said the speaker series, which will run every other month, is an opportunity for the growing membership at GPA to gain insight from world class business professionals.
GPA is a start-up launched in 2012 by Arroyos that provides a wide range of mentoring and professional development programs for soft skills. Such skills include being able to leverage professional aptitude to the fullest, grow professional networks, acquire new learning experiences and engagement opportunities. GPA has four employees and many affiliate partners such as the Jones Center, which hosted Tuesday’s event.
He said businesses lose between $450 million and $550 million annually from lost productivity, because 70% of workers are disengaged, according to the Gallup Poll Employee Engagement study published in 2013.
The largest employers in Northwest, Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods have all joined various levels of GPA’s service programs. Arroyos said the response has been amazing as business membership continues to expand with companies like Corning, Unilever and Softtek, as well as local organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton County and the Northwest Arkansas Council.