Balancing Priorities at Clif Bar
Gary Erickson is a man of integrity. In the spring of 2000 Erickson had an offer of more than $100 million from a major food corporation for his company Clif Bar Inc. He had founded Clif Bar Inc. in 1990 after a long bike ride. Erickson, an avid cyclist, had finished the 175-mile ride longing for an alternative to the tasteless energy bars he had brought along. “I couldn’t make the last one go down, and that’s when I had an epiphany—make a product that actually tasted good.” He looked at the list of ingredients on the package and decided he could do better. He called on his experience in his family’s bakery, and after a year in the kitchen, the Clif Bar—named for Erickson’s father—was launched in 1992. Within five years sales had skyrocketed to $20 million. He considered the $100 million offer on the table and what it meant for his company and decided against the deal. He realized that the vision he had for the company would be compromised once he lost control, so he walked away from the $100 million deal.
He has stuck to his vision and values ever since. His commitment to environmental and social issues are evident in everything he does. On the environmental front, his company has a staff ecologist who is charged with reducing Clif Bar’s ecological footprint on the planet. More than 70 percent of the ingredients in Clif Bars are organic. A change in packaging has saved the company (and the planet) 90,000 pounds of shrink-wrap a year. And the company funds a Sioux wind farm to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from its factories. On the social side, Erickson launched a project called the 2,080 program (2,080 is the total number of hours a full-time employee works in one year). Through the 2,080 program employees are encouraged to do volunteer work on company time. Recently Erickson agreed to support (with salaries and travel expenses) employees who wanted to volunteer in Third World countries.
Erickson is also committed to his team. He thinks about things like, “What should our company be like for the people who come to work each day?” He sees work as a living situation and strives to make Clif Bar Inc.’s offices a fun place to be—there are plenty of bikes around; a gym and dance floor; personal trainers; massage and hair salon; a game room; an auditorium for meetings, movies, and music; dog days every day; and great parties.
As the company grows, however, maintaining such values may not be easy. Clif Bar already has 130 employees, and revenue has been rising by more than 30 percent a year since 1998, according to Erickson. “We’re at a point where we have to find a way to maintain this open culture while we may be getting bigger,” says Shelley Martin, director of operations. “It’s a balancing act.”
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2015). Leadership: enhancing the lessons of experience(pp. 179-180). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.