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New Ben & Jerry’s CEO Promises to Keep Company in Vermont

ben-and-jerrysBURLINGTON, Vt. - Ben & Jerry's chief executive, in Burlington for Free Cone Day, said corporate owner Unilever is "100 percent committed" to having Ben & Jerry's in the state where it began.

Ben & Jerry's is and will remain anchored in Vermont, the ice cream maker's new chief executive, Jostein Solheim, promised Tuesday after he scooped a few cones at the company's Church Street parlor, because of "the history and the authenticity of the culture and values."

The fanfare of Free Cone Day for Ben & Jerry's, one of corporate owner Unilever 's 400 brands, came complete with an appearance by Olympic medalist Hannah Teter and greeted Solheim on his second day on the job.

Although new to Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., Solheim is a 19-year Unilever veteran. Fourteen of those years are with the global conglomerate's ice cream division.

"We're 100 percent committed to the community, of staying here and being here," Solheim said. "The economy is tough, and it's going to remain tough," he said. "But we have a small and loyal following. I'm not nervous."

The company employs 500 to 600 people in Vermont, according to company spokesman Sean Greenwood's tally, and Ben & Jerry's churns out nearly three-quarters of the brand's ice cream from plants in St. Albans, Vt., and Waterbury, Vt.

Ben & Jerry's is a "complex product," and the skill set of the workers in Vermont and the close connection to raw materials make being in Vermont crucial, he said.

"We can leverage the benefits of being in Vermont," Solheim said.

The Vermont brand is a large part of selling the high-end ice cream, he said, adding, "People are buying a little piece of Vermont all over the world."

The company has no plans to leave or scale back production in Vermont, Solheim said - adding that producing ice cream in Vermont is profitable.

With three-quarters of its production in Vermont, Ben & Jerry's also makes less than 10 percent of its ice cream in a Nevada plant, Solheim said. The remainder is made in the Netherlands for the European market.

Two-thirds of Ben & Jerry's is sold in the U.S., he said, mostly along the East and West coasts and in college towns. About one-third of the ice cream is sold in Europe, mostly Great Britain, Germany and the Nordic countries.  Ben & Jerry's also has a "toe-hold" in Japan, Solheim said.

Ben & Jerry's has more autonomy than most of Unilever's brands, Solheim said.  Ben & Jerry's, he said, is the only Unilever brand that operates with its own board and own CEO.

"It's not an ice cream brand. It's a company with a mission," he said, referring to the Ben & Jerry's attempt to consider social and environmental causes.

Close to Norway

Anglo-Dutch Unilever's ice cream division also owns Breyers, Klondike and Popsicle, according to the company's most recent annual report. The company has "400 brands spanning 14 categories of home, personal care and foods products," according to its Web site.

Little information was revealed about Ben&Jerry's in the company's most recent earnings report. Unilever's only note about the ice cream division in the U.S. in its 2009 announcement was: "In North America the Klondike range has been re-launched with a thicker chocolate shell."

Solheim, a Norwegian, comes to Vermont from Englewood, N.J, where he ran Unilever's ice cream marketing division since 2007. Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. for $326 million in 2000.

"This is the closest you can get to Norway in the United States of America," he said, referring to Vermont. "So I'm feeling close to home."

Solheim replaces Walt Freese, chief executive officer at Ben & Jerry's since 2004, who stepped down to pursue other business and investment opportunities. Solheim, along with his wife and two children, jumped quickly into taking on more of a public role than the one he experienced in his Unilever position in New Jersey - although he said he was "overwhelmed" by the fanfare of the free scoop day.

"I'm used to directing the show," Solheim said. "I'm not used to being it."

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