Sweet Surrender

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Licking their cones, 16-year-old Brittany Jackson and Jessica Bouchat, 17, were blissfully unencumbered by thoughts of corporate responsibility or shareholder dividends.

The teens were at Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop at the Gallery in Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday for two reasons only -- to apply for summer jobs and to take advantage of the company's annual Free Cone Day.

They certainly weren't fretting about last week's $326 million purchase of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. by Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer-product companies, in a deal that's raised concerns about the future of an enterprise known as much for its socially responsible business practices as its tasty products.

If there were passionate feelings about the corporate shift, they were difficult to find among the customers lining up for their free cones and cups of flavors like Cherry Garcia and From Russia With Buzz. Devouring a scoop of strawberry, her favorite, Jackson said she couldn't care less who owns Ben & Jerry's, "as long as it's good ice cream."

Across Pratt Street, Brian and Tricia Yost and their 8-year-old son, Jeffrey, visiting from the Washington area, were seeking refuge from the rain at the Ben & Jerry's in Harborplace. Waiting for her New York Super Fudge Chunk cone, Tricia said she was there for flavor, not philanthropy.

"It's very good ice cream. It's more natural, a better taste," she said. "It's definitely a quality ice cream."

Architect Kendall Rhyne also shrugged off the purchase of a company started by a couple of hippies by a conglomerate with annual sales of more than $45 billion.

"I imagine there will be changes," he said, but added: "It doesn't matter to me."

There was at least one solemn voice among the crowd. Accountant Chris Moyer, stopping on his lunch break for a scoop of chocolate, was concerned that even if Netherlands-based Unilever maintains Ben & Jerry's social practices, the company's grass-roots ideals will be lost.

"I think a big part of any company's product is what they do for the world around them," Moyer said. "It's not in the annual report and it doesn't involve the bottom line. It's what we give to the world in common good without expecting anything in return."

That very philosophy has earned a loyal following for a company started in 1978 by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. With an investment of $12,000, a third of it borrowed, Cohen and Greenfield opened shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt. They cultivated what eventually became a successful business with sales of $237 million, 235 franchises across the United States and shops as far afield as Israel and Peru.

Along the way, the partners built a model of social consciousness, an enterprise that went big but never left the little guy behind. The company uses all-natural ingredients bought from small businesses and donates 7.5 percent of pretax earnings to charitable causes.

Unilever's purchase of Ben & Jerry's created a furor among a fiercely loyal clientele who feared this cashing-in would ultimately mean a philosophical sell-out. A Save Ben & Jerry's Web site sprang up (www.savebenandjerrys.com), and rallies were held at outlets across North America.

When the purchase plan first became known last November, franchise owners initiated a postcard campaign, encouraging customers to express their thoughts to Ben & Jerry's board of directors. Dick Snow, who owns shops in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, said more than 2,000 postcards were collected at his stores in Annapolis and Alexandria alone.

Snow understands the strength of that sentiment. He previously owned franchises in a motel company but sold his interests partly, he said, because the company wasn't one he believed in. He was attracted to Ben & Jerry's by its social practices and a focus on selling a quality product rather than simply moving franchises.

Snow says he is confident there won't be a major shake-up in the company, at least for the foreseeable future. Unilever has agreed to maintain the status quo for a two-year period, he said, and Ben & Jerry's will remain based in Vermont.

Funding allocated to Ben & Jerry's charitable foundation will increase, and Snow sees that commitment, combined with the hefty purchase price, as proof that Unilever understands the value of being a socially responsible company. Should that priority be abandoned, he said, it won't happen without opposition.

"Every franchisee, every customer, everyone who's ever had anything to do with the company would try to convince them to remain a socially responsible business," Snow said.

Unilever, which distributes products ranging from spaghetti sauce to cologne, laundry detergent and tea, is also the world's largest ice cream company, with brands including Popsicle, Klondike and Breyers All Natural. The takeover, Snow said, creates the potential for better purchasing power, economies of scale, improved distribution channels "and just deep, deep pockets to do what Ben & Jerry's does times a thousand."

Among those closely monitoring the future of the company is Vincent Luchsinger, who teaches strategy in the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business and frequently uses the Ben & Jerry's case in his classes.

Luchsinger said Cohen and Greenfield were faced with an impossible situation in trying to maintain an economically viable company while honoring their altruistic vision. As competition increased, he said, Ben & Jerry's had to spend more money to make money, saddling its altruistic owners with a "burden of conscience."

The company was too costly for many potential purchasers but not profitable enough to gobble up its competitors, Luchsinger explained. Ultimately, Cohen and Greenfield made the only choice they could, ending a chapter in the history of what Luchsinger called an American icon.

"I think a lot of people felt good that when they were buying a product from Ben & Jerry's they weren't just buying a product, they were helping out, doing something they felt strongly about," he said.

"It's a real tribute. It's a beautiful thing."

Perhaps. But on Free Cone Day at the Inner Harbor, such noble sentiments were definitely taking a licking.

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