After a career full of fretting about just-in-time deliveries, machine downtime and leveraged buyouts, Robert Holland Jr. knows his next management venture is, well-soft, sweet, maybe even ``to die for.'' Holland, 54, a veteran of the injection molding industry and a financial consultant, was named chief executive officer of hip, socially conscious Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., a maker of premium-label ice cream some say is the best in the world.
Holland was selected to replace co-founder Ben Cohen, who will stay on as chairman of the board of directors, but who felt it was time to relinquish his post as CEO to help the firm move to the next level of growth.
As chairman of his own company, Rokher-J Inc. in White Plains, N.Y., Holland has waged leveraged buyouts of service-oriented companies. He also honed his management skills on the rocky road of the plastics industry as former chairman of Detroit-based Gilreath Manufacturing Inc., a custom injection molding company.
``Actually, I hope that my experiences with Gilreath taught me something, but they were not all that pleasant,'' he said in a telephone interview from his new office at Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury, Vt. ``The company ended up in bankruptcy.''
Holland said Gilreath supplied molded parts to both Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. plants in the Detroit area in 1987 when he assumed control.
``The company was a victim of the downturn and downsizing in the auto industry,'' he said. ``We ended up focusing on quality and on efficiency.''
The restructuring worked. In 1991, Holland, who is black, sold his interest in the company to a partnership of black investors, and left to form his Rokher-J consultancy. Last year, Gilreath, recovering well, moved from its 52,000-square-foot facility in Howell, Mich., to a new 100,000-square-foot plant, also in Howell.
Holland's other successes include his takeover of the distributorship for Stroh's beer in southeast Michigan.
``We succeeded in taking a struggling franchise and turning it around,'' Holland said.
He is glad, however, that he does not need to turn Ben &Jerry's around.
Cohen, a former pottery instructor, and Jerry Greenfield founded Ben & Jerry's in 1979, building it from a correspondence course in ice cream making into a $150 million business, while sticking to a policy of donating 10 percent of its pretax profit to charity, environmental causes and local dairy farmers.
Now the folksy firm, maker of such concoctions as ``Cherry Garcia'' and ``Rain Forest Crunch,'' is facing its first quarterly loss ever and a stagnant market. Its closest competitor is Heagen-Dazs Co. Inc., a subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan plc.
Although Cohen and Greenfield conducted a showy national campaign that attracted 22,000 respondents and asked for brief poems explaining why they should be appointed the czar of ice cream, Holland was recommended by a professional headhunting service.
``I wrote a poem too,'' Holland said. ``But I hope that I was selected for my management skills, not my poetry. I'm going to be more ice-cream oriented. I plan to get intimately involved with caramel, marshmallow, fudge, pecan, praline.''
He hopes to make Ben & Jerry's more readily accessible to consumers without jeopardizing quality.
``We may look into the idea of franchising distribution,'' he said. ``The key to the whole success here is the quality of the work force, and their dedication to the quality of the product. We will use that to move the company to the next level.''
Holland is chairman of the board of trustees of Spelman College in Atlanta, a trustee of Atlanta University Center, and a member of the board of the Lincoln Center Theater in New York.
``I spend a lot of time designing ... a social element that I think is extremely important,'' Holland said. ``Companies, when they get to a certain point, need different skills, different capabilities, and I think Ben & Jerry's has gotten to that point. What I'm going to do is guide it through the next phase.''
The ``next phase'' will look much more like traditional business with Holland at the helm. Ben & Jerry's last year began selling in Britain, and is aiming elsewhere overseas.
Despite the firm's good works and charity, it is scrapping its policy that no executive make more than seven times the salary of the lowest-paid employee. Holland will be paid a $250,000 salary and could earn a bonus of $125,000 and 180,000 stock options, based on the company's performance.
As for the lessons he has learned in the plastics business that might apply to his new role, Holland said he has not thought of any specifics yet.
When a reporter suggested one innovation - marketing Ben & Jerry's in plastic containers, perhaps injection molded - Holland demurred.
``I hadn't thought of that, but it might be something to consider,'' he said.