How skipping a private equity deal made it easier for Jeni’s to deal with Listeria crisis

John Lowe, the CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, with more than 20 locations and distribution in 1,800 retail stores across the U.S., temporarily closed its stores and shut down production late last month after a pint of its Dark Chocolate ice cream at a store in Nebraska was found to have Listeria.

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50eLowe, a part owner in the well-regarded and fast-growing ice cream company, is addressing the crisis head on. He did not back out of an appearance at Columbus Startup Week Tuesday, even talking about how the company is addressing the setback.

His candor is an example of how entrepreneurs should address a crisis, with members of the food safety industry citing it as the proper way to respond.

Lowe and his team did not waver. With uncertainty around the product, they shut down operations until they could gather more information.

“There are points in leadership where the decision is pretty clear, and as we looked at ourselves around the table with very foggy info, but enough facts that we thought: ‘We can’t open the stores.’ If we can’t answer why there is one pint that reportedly got listeria in it, then we can’t open the stores. We can’t serve pregnant women and grandmas. That is just not acceptable. We are not going to have to look in the mirror and decide that we blinked at a crucial time, ensuring the safety of our consumers. In a lot of ways, it was a very simple decision. There was no debate. There was nobody around the table arguing the other way…. We are not sure what comes next. We don’t know what is going to cost, or how we are going to fund it. We are not sure what it leads to in terms or how long we will be closed, and the like.”

Lowe said the company encountered a similar situation not too long ago when the executive team decided to walk away from a private equity transaction. And that decision plays right into the handling of the crisis around the listeria recall. Lowe pointed out the importance of making the right decision, even though it created an uncertain future.

“We didn’t know what walking away would entail. We didn’t know what the next steps would be, but we knew it was the right thing to do and we’d just go figure it out. … Looking back at our decision to walk away from the one private equity deal, we are so glad we did because we are so confident now that it enabled us to handle that situation the right way and we would have other people at the table — voting, not voting, they would not have had the ability to make the decision — but we are not 100 percent sure they would have seen it as clear as we saw it. It was just easier and better for us to look at each other and make that decision.”