BURLINGTON, Vt. – The barred rock chicken is known as a good-natured dictator with an extremely good temperament and a commercial quality egg-laying ability. And now, this breed of chicken is also the namesake of Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen’s new $5 million non-profit social venture fund – The Barred Rock Fund.
In its substance, style and attitude, the fund seems to picking up right where its founder left off.
“It’s a page from the old playbook,” says Chuck Lacy, the fund’s manager. Lacy was president of Ben & Jerry’s from 1990 to 1995.
Indeed, says Lacy, the fund’s primary aim is to create high-quality jobs in low-income communities and to provide equity ownership to all employees – and to invest in a product the founders have some affinity for.
“When we were at Ben & Jerry’s, some of the best work we did was in getting some of the small suppliers going – like the bakery in Yonkers [N.Y.] that made the brownies for some of our most popular flavors. We looked across the desk at Ben & Jerry’s and said, We’re going to do more stuff like this’.”
Structured as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization and capitalized by a donation from Cohen himself following the ice cream’s maker’s sale to Unilever last year, the fund will reinvest any returns back into the fund to drive new investments. The Burlington-based fund, like the bird it’s named after, is an unconventional free-range forager: it will scout opportunities throughout the Northeast, invest between $500,000 and $1 million into each company, and then bring in the marketing genius and distribution savvy Ben & Jerry’s is famous for to create a sustainable business.
To date, The Barred Rock Fund has made one investment. It purchased Norristown, Pa.-based Sun & Earth, a maker of environmentally friendly, all-natural cleaning products, for an undisclosed sum in July. Capital-to-People/Murex Investments, a community venture fund operated by Resources for Human Development, a social services agency in Philadelphia, co-invested in the deal. Lacy and the fund’s management team have taken on senior positions at the company, increased wages at Sun & Earth, provided an employee health insurance plan, improved working conditions at the factory and distributed 20% of the company’s stock to its employees. They’ve also launched a massive marketing and advertising campaign with some of Ben & Jerry’s original partners and the team’s original flair.
“We’re breaking down hierarchies and looking at how we do business,” Lacy says. “I think the changes have been well-received. Some of our approaches to marketing are unconventional and it’s come upon us to prove they work.”
The fund will announce a second investment later this month and will continue to make one to two new investments each year over the next several years.
“Right now I can’t see past putting everything into this business,” Lacy says. “We’re going to break a lot of rules. We’re not looking at the fund as a portfolio. We’re going to do investments at a pace we think we can do well and we’re doing this for ourselves and want to do it in a way that allows us to learn as we go. We don’t want to make any mistake more than once.”