How They Made It: The Sweet Success of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield

From the chicken empire of Colonel Sanders to the gargantuan success of Sir Richard Branson, feats of genuine entrepreneurial success, achieved from almost nothing, are truly inspirational for many reasons.

A particularly sweet tale of triumph comes in the form of the partnership between Mr Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream…

Ben and Jerry were childhood friends from Long Island, New York and spent a large amount of time together while growing up.

Following high school, Jerry went off to Oberlin College, Ohio to study for a pre-med degree. Despite graduating from Oberlin, Jerry didn’t achieve the academic success required to get into med school and was rejected two years in a row (1973 and 1974) - this abruptly ended his hopes of ever becoming a doctor.

Meanwhile, in his senior year at high school, Ben subsidised his social life by working part-time as a local ice cream man, where he first became truly acquainted with the many forms and flavours of the sugary summer snack. After finishing high school, Ben went on to study at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, however, this was short lived. Shortly after enrolling, Ben dropped out of college.

As the best of friends, Ben and Jerry were never apart for too long and after their collective academic failure, the dynamic duo both moved back to New York City where they shared an apartment on East 10th Street. While Jerry worked as a lab technician, Ben took up pottery and had a string of different jobs which included a McDonalds cashier, taxi driver, ER clerk, pottery wheel delivery man and a mop boy.

Following a series of jobs, moves and apartments, the pair finally decided to go into business together and after taking a distance-learning course in ice cream making, they finally decided how they were going to invest their money…

Ice cream of course! With a base knowledge (as well as a huge love) of the product they were going to sell, Ben and Jerry took their fairly menial startup sum of $12,000 from a mixture of savings and loans, and started planning. Although they weren’t the most academic types, the pair was certainly savvy and set their sights on Burlington Vermont, pretty much the only college town in the country without a devoted ice cream shop!

In 1978, they began by leasing an old gas station downtown, spruced it up, purchased some essential ice cream making equipment, worked on a list of unique flavours that would make them stand out from the crowd  and soon after developing a few choice batches, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings was officially in business.

Due to Ben’s chronic anosmia (an inability to perceive odour), the pair developed chunky flavours (the types which led onto modern day favourites such as ‘Phish Food’) and this coupled with their carefully-chosen location, made their little parlour an instant success. This quickly led to the pair packing and distributing their products from an old mill in Burlington before opening their first franchise in Shelburne, Vermont where in 1983, their ice cream was used to build the world’s largest ice cream Sundae!

Since then, the brand has sky rocketed to worldwide success and despite its setbacks, chiefly a distribution dispute with parent company Haagen-Dazs, has cemented itself as one of the most loved culinary products on the planet, now taking over £240 million in annual revenue.

What happened to Ben and Jerry? In 2000, the dynamic duo sold the company to Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever who vowed to preserve and maintain the brand to its highest-standards. Both Ben and Jerry are still actively involved in promoting the company but without any responsibility or authority and each year, they carry out a host of community fundraising projects. I’ve also heard that they still enjoy eating a tub or two!

The story of Ben & Jerry’s just goes to show that despite limited start-up funds, a little charisma, bundles of passion and a few well-placed decisions can go an incredibly long way - just think about that when you’re next tucking into your next tub of Chocolate Fudge Brownie or Chunky Monkey!

If you are thinking of creating your own business-based legacy, now’s the time to get started. Here’s to the sweet taste of success!