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CEOs Ben and Jerry swim outside corporate culture

As corporations replace religious institutions and governments as the world's most potent force, business executives become global leaders, our priestly class.

Their books become popular best sellers, their faces fill magazine covers. We might not be able to name the chief executive of Canada, but the names of Gates, Dell, Disney, Eisner, Kelleher and Moffett are part of daily discourse.They command pay on a scale once reserved for reigning monarchs. Actually, they are "a kind of royalty," according to a recent Wall Street Journal article headlined "CEOs Are Stars Now, But Why?" A consultant who polishes the images of about 300 of them notes: "All of a sudden, ordinary people can name CEOs."

But only two can claim to be known by ordinary folks on a first-name basis. There's Ben, and there's his sidekick Jerry. And if we regard business chiefs as the new priestly class, then hearing Ben and Jerry give their public talk is like hearing a couple of maverick preachers conduct an offbeat tent revival meeting.

They're successful big-league business executives, for sure, and their paired first names are household words. But with their chinos and stonewashed T-shirts, loopy humor, cheerful grins and subversive against-the-tide message, they clearly swim outside corporate life's mainstream.

"Many corporations are destroying this society and couldn't care less," says Ben Cohen, the woollier of the wild-and-woolly twosome. He's not afraid to call such organizations "sociopathic" or to suggest in public that corporations, like people, should have spiritual values. He wants corporations to put their moral values at the top of their priorities and post them right alongside their mission statements.

Brutal Darwinian competition, ruthless expansion, amoral product-pushing, covert undermining of politics, exploitation of resources and unchecked greed don't have to be "the way business works," they preach.

I heard Cohen make his unconventional pitch for humane business before a packed room of social workers, leaders of nonprofit groups and a few business types. They'd gathered to meet with representatives of Austin-area businesses at an annual philanthropic summit called HARI-Tech. He'd been introduced by his childhood friend and current business partner, Jerry Greenfield - the beardless one in the purple shirt.

Greenfield told the stories of how he and Cohen met in seventh-grade P.E. class (they bonded as the two slowest, fattest kids, he said) and how their careers failed to go in any direction but circles until they took a correspondence course and decided to make ice cream in a little Vermont town.

He recounted how the fledgling Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. overcame a threat from mighty Pillsbury with a shoestring "What's the Doughboy Afraid Of?" campaign - just a warm-up for the "Thousand Pints of Light" outreach.

Cohen takes up the tale at the point where the two ice-cream dippers find themselves in charge of a $170 million operation that needs a big infusion of capital. He tells how they registered as stockbrokers, went on the road and sold stock to one of every 100 families in Vermont, then went national.

He explains some of the routes they've used to honor both the bottom line and the Ben & Jerry's social line: Creating a foundation that gets 7.5 percent of the corporation's pretax profits, buying rainforest Brazil nuts for their Rain Forest Crunch and Wavy Gravy flavors, buying coffee from a Mexican cooperative and flavoring Chocolate Fudge Brownie with $2 million a year in purchases from an inner-city bakery that hires the "unemployable."

Since business generally is often "very involved in politics, usually in a covert way, and in support of very narrow interests," Greenfield says, it isn't much of a stretch for business leaders to get involved in politics in a more overt way, and to turn their attention to a broader good.

He claims to discern a "major paradigm shift" rattling the world. "Despite the fact that it's a shift back to biblical values," he says, "it's being met with incredible resistance."

So to give the shift a nudge, he and some other corporate executives have founded Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. The group's main aim appears to be redirecting military spending ("Pentagon pork") toward domestic human-needs spending - health, education, etc. - that's been heavily cut in recent years.

The group's impressive list of senior military advisers is headed by Col. David Hackworth (U.S. Army, ret.), a decorated veteran turned popular writer on defense issues, and Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense.

To wind up the stem-winder, Cohen summons forth some local college students toting a 6-foot-tall chart of worldwide military spending. The students have to pull a black band representing U.S. spending far, far around the perimeter of the room to show just how "off the chart" it goes. Meanwhile, the nation's schools are crumbling, Cohen complains.

Cohen's group's brochure quotes another founding member, Alan Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO of Hasbro Inc.: "Too many great nations in history have been superpowers that crumbled from within. Surely it is time to take another look at our nation's priorities. . . ."

And, Ben and Jerry would add, at the priorities of the businesses they view as the world's real superpowers.