The Sweet Green Life of a Ben & Jerry's CEO

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

This week I had a great conversation with Walt Freese, Former CEO (Chief Euphoria Officer) of Ben & Jerry's. Freese (which is about the most appropriate name possible for an ice cream CEO) served in this role from 2004-2010. (He also served as President of Celestial Seasons for from 1998-2001).

We spoke about the importance in his life of being values driven both at the personal and professional level, the significance of being authentic, the role of marketing and his interesting twist on it, continuous innovation, consumer interaction and how employee engagement got Ben & Jerry's back on track and away from a hierarchy that was seeping into the business.

Ben & Jerry's started up in 1973 with two men who ironically did have the view that "business" could be an agent of change. For Ben and Jerry, it was just a way to make a living that was less expensive than getting into the bagel business (true story!). They continued to create innovative ice-cream flavors and be involved with their community while having fun and being slightly irreverent. In other words, living their lives as they would anyway.

As success grew, they began having a "crisis of confidence," as Walt puts it. So they changed the business model and were clearly pioneers in doing so.

I had a feeling that Freese felt similarly, so I asked him why he decided to go work at Ben & Jerry's in the first place. He said he wanted to make a conscious decision to make a significant or progressive change in the world and would only work for a values driven organization, profit or non-profit, that coincided with his personal beliefs. And, of course, the rest is history.

"There is this common belief out there in business to be a values-led company you are somehow less conventional in business terms," Freese said. "I think that it is in an era in thinking based on history. If you run a good values-based business, put it to work in the world and people see that, my experience has taught me that you will earn more and more loyal consumers. Now, on a financial basis what that means is the number one predictor of a company's profit is consumer loyalty. Consumers tend to be more loyal to companies that stand for something that they believe in the world."

His favorite ice-cream flavor? He said it changes but he went with Phish Food. It didn't surprise me that part of his love for the flavor has to do with its original partnership with the band Phish to help serve local water issues to clean up Lake Champlain. Chocolate ice-cream with marshmallow and caramel isn't such a bad combination either. Too bad the corner store is closed as I write this...

George Papoulias edited this podcast.