Hear the screams for ice cream ripple across this low-fat, calorie-conscious land: "Multi-flavors NOT multinationals!" "Save the cow!" "Don't sell out!"
Upset that Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings Inc. is considering unsolicited buyout offers, fans of the superpremium brand (read: high-fat, high-calorie) rallied this week at several franchises across the nation to urge the company to resist the lure of the megamerger and remain independent.
No one gathered in Vermont, where Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shops are all company-owned. But it is here, where nonnatives are derisively called "flatlanders" and residents were the first to buy Ben & Jerry's stock, that the prospect of the tie-dyed duo selling out to an international conglomerate generates the greatest anxiety.
No for-profit firm is so heralded--and so scrutinized--for its commitment to socially responsible business, from environment-friendly packaging to the 7.5 percent in pretax profits donated to charity. Nor does any enterprise so indelibly conjure a nostalgic image of Vermont, where black-and-white spotted cows forever graze amid rolling green hills.
"As we market Vermont, we market Ben & Jerry's," said Gov. Howard Dean (D), who is attempting to ward off a sale. "And as they market Ben & Jerry's, they market Vermont."
"They have got to keep it the way it is," said tourist Helen Aronson, 52, of Memphis, fresh from a Ben & Jerry's factory tour in which she learned Ben's favorite dessert is Doonesberry Sorbet--technically not ice cream--and received a free sample of Triple Caramel Chunk. "Their whole philosophy of giving back and sharing is what makes it so special. Anybody can make flavors."
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are the boyhood pals who began making ice cream here in a renovated gas station in 1978. Their folksy tale of entrepreneurship and iconoclastic spirit inspired others to measure the bottom line by both financial profit and social change, what they called "values-led business."
The ensuing protest movement, led by grass-roots campaigns such as the Coalition to Save Ben & Jerry's, accordingly has assumed their hyperbolical tone--from the State House, where one legislator wondered aloud if Ben & Jerry's chocolate would still be as chocolaty, to the Internet, where visitors are urged to buy shares and "take Ben & Jerry's back for the people."
A 23-year-old Massachusetts Web designer, who considers Cohen his mentor, designed one site depicting a corporate shark threatening an ice cream-eating cow. He warns, "They want to skin the company alive and use its gentle lambskin brand to fool unsuspecting consumers into purchasing their soulless, profit-driven products."
A rally at the flagship store here last month featured speeches by Rep. Bernard Sanders (Ind.) and Mayor Peter Clavelle, while demonstrators proposed products along the lines of "Two-Faced Swirl" and "Very Hypocritical Berry Sorbet." On Tuesday, pop icon Wavy Gravy led about 40 demonstrators wearing cow outfits and singing to banjo tunes in San Francisco as a blizzard forced others to huddle inside a Boston store. (Demonstrations in Washington and Baltimore were canceled due to the weather.)
Store owners have encouraged customers to send postcards urging rejection of any bid, noting with worry that a discussion of mergers and acquisitions in the ice cream industry arose at a recent franchisee meeting in Florida.
"For me, it's an emotional issue. I got involved with Ben & Jerry's because I loved the history of the company, I went to college in New England, and I loved that they made great ice cream and did a lot of work with community groups I felt good about," said Lori Johnston, who owns two stores in the District. "I don't like the idea of a large corporation taking them over. I worry that the social mission would be the first to go."
In fact, Ben & Jerry's is something of a large corporation itself, reaching to Japan and Israel with more than 700 employees, annual net sales exceeding $230 million, and its own charitable foundation. Free pints of leftovers aside, one Burlington store employee in a Ben & Jerry's shirt said, "It feels like a chain. It's the same as working at McDonald's."
Cohen and Greenfield no longer participate in day-to-day management, but retain majority control with another director, allowing them to potentially spurn the advances of rumored suitors Unilever Corp., Nestle SA, rival Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, and Diageo PLC, which owns Haagen-Dazs. Neither of the men could be reached, and a company spokeswoman declined comment. The latest financial report said no deadline for a decision has been set.
Greenfield told the Associated Press that federal regulations prevented him from discussing board deliberations. "No decisions have been made," he said. "No implications should be drawn."
Cohen, in an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio, said: "It's my strong personal belief that the only way that the company can actualize its progressive values is to remain independent. So within the bounds of my fiduciary duties as director, I am working hard to find a way to remain independent and return adequate value to the shareholders."
That's the tricky part. The Dec. 2 announcement indicated potential buyers were willing to pay significantly more than the Nasdaq stock price at the time, which could make board members subject to a lawsuit by shareholders should they decide not to sell. As if to prepare for such an exigency, Vermont passed legislation saying a company may consider factors other than profit, such as the impact on the state economy, when deciding whether to accept an offer. Ben & Jerry's Waterbury factory is the hottest tourist attraction in Vermont, and the company pays premium prices for 20 percent of the milk and cream produced by a dairy cooperative serving 560 family farms.
Make no mistake: The legislation is known as Ben & Jerry's Law.
"It is incomprehensible and insane that the directors of a company who might want to protect jobs in America and family farms can be sued for being irresponsible," Rep. Sanders said. "Ben & Jerry's are very much tied up with Vermont's identity, and my personal hope is that they will not sell."
Not everyone cares. Fact is, some dairy farmers said they are more worried about laws governing manure handling than losing Ben & Jerry's business. Other people are critical of a track record that includes ending a policy of paying the highest-paid worker no more than seven times the lowest-paid and being forced to change a Rainforest Crunch label amid reports the brand did little to benefit a Brazilian cooperative, as claimed.
A highly publicized "Yo! I'm Your CEO" essay contest also went sour several years ago when a headhunter selected the new chief executive after more than 20,000 applicants applied for the job in good faith.
Others simply resent the cutesy Vermont image propagated with every pint.
"Their products are, indeed, delicious, but . . . they would have to be sweet to hide the bitter aftertaste of political correctness that they jam down our throats with every heaping spoonful," said Rene' Read, 31, who works for the town where Ben and Jerry live. "Sure, they started in Vermont, great. That was nice. But they certainly aren't from here. Let them sell."
CAPTION: Moshe Cohen, right, demonstrates at ice cream outlet in Haight-Ashbury against conglomeration of Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's.