Ben & Jerry's founders urge CEOs to do good

Ben & Jerry's founders speak

Staff WriterMay 19, 2010 

The aging hippies who founded Ben & Jerry's Homemade ice cream spent Tuesday morning in downtown Raleigh, encouraging business leaders to use their positions of power to do more to help the planet and their communities.

"Business is the most powerful force in society today," Jerry Greenfield told about 375 executives and others at the invitation-only, $475-per-person N.C. CEO Forum.

Power used to be held by religion and then government, but business has grown to wield more influence on employees, customers and others, he said. And that makes it ever more crucial for businesses to take actions that do good while making money.

His partner, Ben Cohen, lobbied for more specific steps.

He called on executives to advocate for the federal government to shift its priorities and spend more money to combat problems such as hunger and education. He used stacks of Oreo cookies to show how redistributing $70 billion of military spending a year for other purposes would have a major impact without sacrificing national security.

"Our society depends not on how many people we can kill, but how many people we can feed, clothe and educate," he told he crowd at the downtown Raleigh Marriott. "Politicians like to talk to business guys. It would be good to put a bug in their ears."

Ben & Jerry's built its reputation on giving back, using 7.5 percent of its pretax profit to support the efforts of nonprofits. The Vermont company that they founded in 1978 is now owned by Unilever, a London-based conglomerate.

The two still have advisory roles with the company, but they have turned over much of the daily operations. "We now have jobs where we have no responsibility, but also no real authority," Greenfield joked.

Many of the other speakers at the CEO forum agreed with the ice cream duo's main points that businesses need to work harder to improve more than their profit margins.

What they said

Here are some other highlights from the event, which this year centered around "The Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet and Profit."

The push to create a corporate culture of responsibility and sustainability makes it more important to hire the right people, said Vern Davenport, an executive with Allscripts. The medical-software company employs more than 1,300 people at its North Raleigh campus.

"Employees carry a corporate checkbook everywhere they go," he said. "It only takes one person to destroy a company's image."

Expectations continue to rise among customers and employees for businesses to do the right things and improve their lives, said Cynthia Marshall, head of AT&T's operations and 8,500 workers in North Carolina. "I tell our employees that we don't just work here, we live here," she said. "People expect us to act like we live here."

To truly change a market with a new technology, company leaders must do everything possible to encourage innovation among workers, Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda said. A big goal at the Durham LED lighting company is to make all of its existing products obsolete by coming up with something better.

"You need to reward people who are biased toward change," Swoboda said. "I don't want to make the same mistake twice, but you need to try new things and learn from them.

"I want people who are unafraid of failure but are unwilling to fail," he added.

Swoboda also announced that Cree will donate $1.5 million worth of energy efficient LED lights for kitchens in homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

The company's lights are designed to reduce electricity use and energy costs. The three-year partnership will further Cree's efforts to encourage awareness of its LED lights, especially for residential use.

"I love things that are good for the environment, but they've also got to be good business," Swoboda said. "This is good for our business."

alan.wolf@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4572

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