Life Won't Be Just A Bowl Of Cherry Garcia

The advertising geniuses on Madison Avenue should be so smart. On June 13, the directors of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. launched a national contest to find a new chief executive officer, unwittingly tapping into a fantasy popular the world over. Asked to mail in 100-word essays on "Why I Would Be A Great CEO For Ben & Jerry's," some 16,000 aspiring CEOs have showered the company's Vermont headquarters with mail. The first-place finisher gets to run Ben & Jerry's, and the runner-up gets--yes, it's true--a lifetime supply of ice cream. Even the losers get something: a rejection letter "suitable for framing."

Many applicants are as unconventional as Ben & Jerry's, an outfit known as much for sharing its wealth with the poor as for its incredibly rich ice cream. An entire fifth-grade class sent in letters (some students offering to develop new ice cream flavors). An advertising executive attached his resume to a Superman costume. One woman sent in a near-nude photo of herself, and other, less salacious resumes have arrived from as far as London and India.

To get noticed, Johanna Bamesberger, a 30-year-old schoolteacher from Valparaiso, Ind., scrawled her essay on a painting of a woman reading a children's book. No, she has never run a company, but "I'm hoping there would be people there that could guide me along," she says. Allen Stillman, head of Smith & Wollensky, a New York restaurant chain, claims he was serious when he put a full-page ad in the New York Times offering his services. But he says Ben & Jerry's would have to let him work from Manhattan, huffing: "I'd never move to Vermont." The company claims the more serious applicants include three executives from archrival Haagen-Dazs Co., though it won't disclose their names.

Behind the hype, Ben & Jerry's seriously needs help. With about $154 million in sales and an expected $6 million in profits this year, the company has outgrown the management skills of its founders. Like Steve Jobs at Apple Computer Inc. and Mitch Kapor at Lotus Development Corp., Ben & Jerry's co-founder and CEO Bennett R. Cohen--a college dropout--decided to step down as chief exec. "I feel really stretched trying to run an organization of this size," says Cohen, who'll stay on as chairman.

After scooping up double-digit annual sales growth since its inception in 1978, the company is faltering. With profits expected to dip about $1 million from last year, Ben & Jerry's stock has fallen from a high of nearly $34 in Sept, 1992, to under $17 lately.

Why the meltdown? One reason is that Ben & Jerry's core U.S. market--super-premium ice cream sold in grocery stores--slowed to just a 4% gain last year. To return to double-digit growth, the company needs new markets. One target is Europe, but Ben & Jerry's has yet to develop a coherent international strategy. That will be a key job for the new CEO, says chief financial officer, Frances Rathke.

CAPS OFF. Another issue is controlling expenses. Ben & Jerry's has subcontracted about 40% of its ice cream production to a costly outside supplier. A new $35 million manufacturing plant is under construction, but analysts say that the expense will help give Ben & Jerry's its first-ever profit decline this year.

Ben & Jerry's directors may appear to be making light of their task with the gimmicky contest--but they are taking the job seriously. A search firm will start developing a realistic list of candidates. Afd the board made a decision that may be critical for top talent: It lifted a salary cap that limited the CEO's pay to seven times that of the lowest-paid employee. While Cohen owns stock worth $18 million, he was paid just $133,212 plus $2,664 in retirement contributions last year, without stock options. Recruiters say the going rate for a company Ben & Jerry's size is from $300,000 to $500,000.

No matter how big the eventual CEO's paycheck, the mood around headquarters will likely remain perpetually offbeat. "We can grow as fast as we want," crows Cohen. Any successor would have to be just as ebullient--but even more savvy about laying out a long-term game plan for one of America's quirkiest companies.

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