Often times, business owners look to mergers and acquisitions as a strategic method of exiting their business. Yet, when creating or proceeding with an exit strategy as it relates to mergers and acquisitions, questions regarding ethics always seem to present themselves as a business owner decides upon staying true to their businesses’ original mission or purpose throughout and after the exit. According to Jim Baker in his, The Adventure Begins When the Plan Falls Apart, business owners have a lot of questions to ask themselves in order to prepare themself for the future. In particular, they might decide whether or not money is the most important aspect in their sell, or if other things such as legacy, ethics, or continuing working with the buyer should take precedent in this decision. Ben and Jerry’s serves as an interesting example of a company that has attempted to be “ethical” from its start in a Vermont garage in the 1970’s, to its $326 million dollar acquisition by Unilever in 2000. While some believe that Ben & Jerry’s remained loyal to their social mission statement, others disagree.  

Ben and Jerry’s started from very humble beginnings with a three-part mission statement that put an emphasis upon the company’s social mission, which states, “our Social Mission compels us to use our Company in innovative ways to make the world a better place. To operate the Company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally.”  The company went through great lengths to fulfill this mission when they first opened. They relied majorly upon local and organic milk suppliers to make their products, hired a local artist to design the graphics on their cartons and advertisement, offered even their lowest paid workers more than twice the national minimum wage, and when their need for capital grew, they sold stock only to Vermont residents which in turn reinforced the company’s local roots.  

However, by the mid 1990’s, the performance of Ben & Jerry’s began to decline significantly, and by 1999 the stock had dropped almost 50 percent from its heigh performance. In turn, many investors began to assert that the company’s strong social mission was something that the company could no longer swing financially, and would need to be modified in the event that the company chose to sell.  

Fast forward to 2000, when Ben & Jerry’s was sold out to Unilver, the world’s third-largest consumer good company, at the price of $326 million. After 20 years as a private business, Ben & Jerry’s was now a subsidiary of a multibillion-dollar company.  

When Ben & Jerry’s accepted the offer, there were also provisions included that worked to nurture the company’s social mission as it was an important facet of the company. First, the subsidiary would have an independent board for directors which would work to promote the social mission and the brand’s integrity. In addition, Unilever agreed to provide pretax profits to charity, maintain its corporate presence in Vermont for at least five years, as well as avoid layoffs for at least two years.  

Cohen and Greenfield, owners of Ben and Jerry’s stated that while they “would have preferred for Ben & Jerry’s to remain independent,” they were “excited about this next chapter.” They felt as though they had won big time, as Unilever agreed to abide by their social mission. However, some point out that following the sale, the company quickly shifted away from its original mission statement of social responsibility internally, as they began to make less payments to local dairy farmers, and talked more and more about looming layoffs. However at the same time, they maintained their external image of placing an importance on social contributions.  

Regardless of onlooker views, Cohen and Greenfield were happy with the way their “exit” from Ben & Jerry’s unfolded. They believed that they did the best they could maintaining their original social mission, a facet of the company that was of great value to them, while at the same time still profiting from their sell. While there are numerous factors to consider when exiting a company, one important piece that a business owner must consider is their ethics, and how they will factor into an exit strategy.  

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