Amherst Magazine

No More Knocking Heads

By Katherine Jamieson

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Chuck Lacy ’80

Chuck Lacy describes his career as a series of 90-degree turns. As an executive at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, he oversaw a tenfold increase in sales and the creation of 700 new jobs in rural Vermont. As a producer of the Tribeca Film Festival winner The War Tapes, he and his crew edited stories from footage sent in by soldiers in Iraq. These days, as an independent cattle farmer, “leverage is something I do with a pipe.”  

Working at Ben & Jerry’s was “hilarious and grueling,” says Lacy, who was profiled in Amherst when he became the firm’s president and COO in 1990. “We were influential in the business community because we showed that you didn’t have to be straightlaced.” During his tenure, the company famous for Cherry Garcia and social liberalism initiated “ice cream diplomacy,” opening a café-factory in Russia in 1992.

By 1994, Ben & Jerry’s had plans to expand to Europe and Asia, but an expert evaluating the company’s environmental impact asked, as Lacy remembers it, “What are you guys doing, making ice cream and shipping it to England and Japan?” To Lacy, continued financial growth—a must for a publicly traded firm—seemed impossible without geographic growth. “I didn’t see a way out of that problem.”

This crossroads, combined with a general sense of exhaustion, prompted Lacy to resign in 1995, when the firm hired Robert Holland to replace Ben Cohen as CEO and Lacy as president. “I stayed around for a year afterwards, helping the transition,” Lacy says. In 2000 Ben & Jerry’s became a division of the multinational Unilever.

“Ben & Jerry’s was an extraordinary experience,” Lacy says. “I knew, if I tried to duplicate that or exceed it, I would be really frustrated and have to leave Vermont. I realized that I’d be happiest if I evaluated my success on a totally different measuring stick.” He took classes toward a creative writing degree at Dartmouth and started businesses with each of his three children. When his youngest became interested in cattle farming, Lacy saw an opportunity to revive the beef industry in New England with grass-fed, heritage breeds. Over the past decade, he’s converted pastures from three old dairy farms for his own herd of cattle and started a grass-fed-beef distribution business. He’s also a guest lecturer at MIT, where he teaches about socially responsible businesses.

Running his own farm has proved more gratifying to Lacy than “knocking heads at the policy level,” he says. “These days I’d rather invest my time in things I run myself, which involve little compromise with nonbelievers.” He laughs, “I’m a crotchety old curmudgeon.”

Photo by Rob Mattson