A Venture Capitalist Follows His Curiosity
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:45
Chuck Lacy '18
Lacy has always found a passion in advocating for local farmers and locally grown food.

Chuck Lacy ’80, the former president of Ben & Jerry’s, had an active hand in expanding the company’s sales growth from $17 million to $160 million. But despite his impressive success in the business world, he’s incredibly down to earth. When I asked him for a photo of himself to include in this profile, he sent me a picture sitting outside in a sweatshirt and baseball cap. Whether he was describing his family, his time at Amherst or the small businesses he’s worked with, what’s most striking about Lacy is his humility.

The Young Entrepreneur

Lacy was born in a small town called Brookside, just outside of Boston. He then moved to Morristown, New Jersey where he lived with both of his parents, one brother and one sister. His father, a felt salesman, traveled two and a half hours each day to his job in New York City.

Lacy’s interest in business started when he was young. At age 12, Lacy noticed the financial troubles that his father faced after being laid off from his job. Lacy then decided he would try to raise money by selling fishing jigs. He bought lead, melted it and decorated the jigs with feathers himself. He titled the business “Lacy’s Panfish Killers,” and created advertisements to be placed in the Outdoor Life Magazine.

“I was just trying to help out,” he said. “It didn’t really work, but he appreciated it.”

One of his most formative experiences before college came when he traveled to Montana. In the back of a sporting magazine, Lacy found an advertisement for a month-long outdoor expedition in Montana and decided that he had to do it.

“It was wild,” he said. “My mother gave me 40 bucks and told me ‘don’t tell your father.’ In my old man’s pinto, he took me out to route 80 in Whippany Park. He then gave me $20 and told me ‘don’t tell your mother.’”

Lacy then hitchhiked from Whippany Park in Whippany, New Jersey all the way to Montana, where he stayed for a month.

Escaping the Amherst Bubble

When Lacy arrived at Amherst in 1975, the college was an exclusively male institution. Drinking, partying and living in fraternities were the markers of the college’s social scene.

“Yeah, we were jerks,” Lacy laughed. “I was in a fraternity. I think we were one of the better ones, but I think we were pretty self-indulgent. Not particularly thinking about anyone else or the rest of the world — pretty inwardly focused.”

He also arrived at the college during a time of change — there were many conversations being held across campus about whether or not women would start being admitted to the college. Debates raged across campus, with heated arguments being tossed by members from both sides of the issue. Lacy remembers how the admittance of women changed the social scene at Amherst.

“It was a much better place when I left than when I started,” Lacy said. “The women were incredible — I mean, they were so, tough. The whole place was not really welcoming, but the women were just tough. They stuck it out.”

Besides members of his fraternity, Lacy became good friends with a group of students he attended a protest with. In May of 1977, towards the end of his sophomore year — “during finals week,” he added with a laugh — he and 2,000 other enthusiastic protestors went to the Seabrook Power Plant in New Hampshire to protest the plant’s construction. He was arrested that day and was then relocated to a room in the Manchester Armory with around 700 other activists.

“It was the best [learning] experience I ever got,” he said. “Some professors got that and some didn’t.”
The experience helped shape the rest of his time at Amherst.

“Up until that point, I had been living in a fraternity and was very inwardly focused,” Lacy said. “I tried to keep up with preppy social scene. This helped me break out of that and to take a more activist, purposeful look at the world. I had more of a desire to hang out with people that had larger, more global community goals. [The school’s culture] was a lot of hard drinking and hard partying, but that helped me transition out of it.”

On Business

After graduating from Amherst, Lacy went on to work for the Amherst Water Department. He then started a small business selling water conservation valves in Washington, D.C. When this project failed, he decided to work in a shelter until he went to Cornell to earn his Master’s in Business Administration. After receiving his MBA, he went on to work in United Health Services in Binghamton, New York as a hospital manager, where he had the great responsibility of organizing and maintaining all of the hospital’s workers.

“I was 27 or 28 and I had hundreds of people working for me,” Lacy said.

At the same time, Ben & Jerry’s was beginning to sprout rapidly as a company. It had recently expanded from about 25 employees to 50, which, without a manager, was a difficult task. Lacy’s managerial experience fit perfectly into the Ben & Jerry’s picture.

While working at the hospital, Lacy was also on the board of a credit union in Ithaca. He was introduced to Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s by a fellow board member who was also on the board of Ben & Jerry’s.

“In the hospital I was running psychiatric programs, drug and alcohol programs, a lot of clinics, a gastroenterology lab, different parts of the hospitals,” Lacy said. “It was fun ... It’s a hive of human activity. It’s highly regulated; it’s a hard place to try something that is unusual. I was hungry for something that was a little more creative and spontaneous, and that’s when I moved into Ben & Jerry’s.”

Lacy worked hand in hand with Cohen and his partner Jerry Greenfield to manage and expand the company. As they built the company up, they tried to develop it organically, without doing any traditional advertising. They held many festivals across the country, which garnered attention from the masses. They also came out with interesting flavors with distinct names, distinguishing themselves from other ice cream companies. “Haagen Daaz was there ahead of us and they were very straight, kind of corporate, kind of slick,” Lacy said. “We needed to create a point of difference with them. We knew there would be two: Coke needs Pepsi; Ford needs Chevy. We wanted to be that other one, but to do that, we knew we had to be different. We were growing the business when Ronald Reagan was president, so people were looking for something that was counter culture at that moment.”

After Ice Cream

After working at Ben & Jerry’s, Lacy continued to work with Cohen on a venture capital fund called Barred Rock Fund. This fund has about $5 million in total committed capital, and its social mission is “to create jobs and wealth for low-income people by growing businesses that offer a living wage and good benefits,” according to its mission statement.

Through this company, he has become involved with many socially minded companies. He looks for entrepreneurs with an edge — they must be “a little bit crazy” and in need of a strategic business partner to move forward with. He said he also looks for people that have a genuine awareness of their customers.

“People have an idea but people need to produce something, even on small scale, to face moment of truth with the customer,” he said. “I like people that like selling. The thing I hate about MBA schools is that the big thing they teach them is how to write a business plan. They just spend weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks writing a business plan without ever talking to a customer.”

Additionally, since working with Ben & Jerry’s, he has moved from selling ice cream to selling beef. He combined three old dairy farms into one large beef-selling farm called Hardwick beef, the largest grass-fed beef company in New England. With this company, he aims to sell beef to butchers “that aren’t Whole Foods” in order to provide a brand for natural food stores to compete with companies like Whole Foods.

Promoting locally grown food is important to Lacy’s businesses. He also works on two international projects that stress the importance of local foods. His son works with a company in Costa Rica which aims to sell local coffee to the Costa Rican locals, and Lacy is partnered with this company.

“We’re trying to sell good coffee to Costa Ricans,” he said. “Most of the coffee gets exported.”

He also works with a friend who is developing production and marketing systems in Kumawu, Ghana. His friend Yaw Nyarko (a native of Ghana and a current New York University professor) offers economic advice, and Lacy offers agricultural advice. Together, they are looking at how to bring small-scale food processing to small communities. Their hope is that Ghanaians can benefit from their commodities rather than just export them. Lacy has a six-week regimented schedule: he goes to Ghana for two weeks, then comes home for four weeks. While there, he mostly talks with farmers to better understand their current situation and how to best move forward.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “There’s no electricity and no clean water, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity. There’s a lot of great people there. A lot of talent.”

On Life
When asked what his greatest accomplishment is, Lacy boasted, “I have been married for 31 years, and I have three fabulous kids who still like their parents.”

He said that due to his continuous work growing businesses around Vermont, he and his family have built a very strong sense of place together.

“You need to make wherever you are a special place as opposed to going to places that are already special,” he said. “I feel like that’s what we have helped do. Vermont is becoming a special place. My wife was a speaker of representatives there, I was at Ben & Jerry’s there. By staying put, we have helped to build a really good community where we are and my kids feel like they’re from someplace that they care about.”

Through it all, Lacy clearly maintains elements of the Amherst model of learning.

“I’m also proud of maintaining curiosity,” he said. “I told my kids that the only B.A. they had to get was a degree in curiosity from Dad.”