News | November 21, 2000

Ben & Jerry's co-founders protest new CEO

Ben & Jerry’s co-founders protest new CEO

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.'s co-founders are voicing their disapproval with a Unilever exec being named to head the company, and hinted they might jump ship in protest.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who started the company more than two decades ago, issued a statement of disapproval after former CEO Perry Odak was replaced this week by longtime Unilever manager Yves Couette.

"We strongly supported a different candidate, a longtime member of Ben & Jerry's board of directors whose commitment to our social policies was clear and established," Cohen and Greenfield said. "As owner, Unilever of course has the legal right to manage Ben & Jerry's in the way it sees fit. We have not decided whether or not to remain with the company."

A French native, Couette most recently was managing director of the $45 billion Anglo-Dutch corporation's Mexican ice cream business, Helados Holanda.

In accepting the B&J CEO job, Couette emphasized a shared philosophy with Cohen and Greenfield, and pledged to keep the company's social activism intact. (See related article).

Despite Unilever's takeover of B&J last April, Cohen and Greenfield have remained as employees of the South Burlington, VT-based superpremium ice cream maker. In addition, Cohen is a member of the company's board of directors.

B&J's co-founders reportedly aren't the only ones frowning on Couette's appointment. Unilever spokesman Stephen Milton indicated in an Associated Press report that three execs announced they're planning on exiting the manufacturer of Vermont's Finest: Chief Marketing Officer Michael Sands, Director of Social Mission Elizabeth Bankowski, and Senior Director of Operations Bruce Bowman.

When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's, the global giant pledged not to tamper with the once-independent ice cream maker's trademark activism. (See related article).

Under the takeover agreement inked last spring, Unilever was slated to provide a $5 million one-time grant to the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which earmarks funds toward community-oriented projects. The international corporation also has pledged to annually provide $1.1 million or 7.5% of its pre-tax profits, whichever is higher, to the cause. In addition, Unilever will put $5 million in B&J's social venture fund, allowing the investment of seed capital in small minority or disadvantaged businesses.

Odak, who B&J leaders said is leaving his position for "personal reasons," will stay on with Vermont's Finest until January to aid Couette in transferring power, company leaders said.

Edited by Gerry Clark,
Managing Editor, Dairy