Clif Bar’s owners: How rejecting $120 million buyout kept business as a…

The Bay Area’s Anchor Brewing sold to Sapporo. Niman Ranch meats is now owned by Perdue. And Blue Bottle Coffee gave up a majority stake to Nestle.

But Berkeley-born Clif Bar, when offered a big buyout opportunity from Quaker Oats, turned it down and opted to remain locally owned.

In the years since, the nutrition bar company created by Gary Erickson, a cycling fanatic and then-fledgling baker, has parlayed its success and market share into a reputation as one of the Bay Area’s most innovative employers. At its LEED platinum-certified headquarters in Emeryville, Clif employs personal trainers for its workforce, offers onsite child care and gives cash incentives to “clean” commuters, even up to $6,500 toward the purchase of an electric or hybrid vehicle.

He and co-owner Kit Crawford, his wife, also invited employees to join them in owning the company. We caught up with the duo on their vacation and chatted about their corporate vision, employee perks, salary parity — and granola. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: Clif Bar is one of the Bay Area’s most progressive companies, winning awards year after year as a great, sustainable, eco-friendly place to work. Why are these programs important for employee morale?

Kit: We chose to remain family- and employee-owned to run a different kind of company, the kind of place we wanted to work. To do that, we measure our success not by one, but five bottom lines — sustaining our business, our brands, our people, our community and the planet. It felt essential to build a workplace shaped by those same values, rather than cherry-pick a handful of nice perks.

Things like paid time off to volunteer, a company gym with classes and trainers, and on-site child care at Clif Base Camp help our people stay connected to their health, their families and their community.

If you stop by our Emeryville HQ at lunch, you’re likely to see kids and parents having a meal at our employee-run cafe, dogs greeting you at desks and Clifsters heading out for a run or volunteer project.

Q: Does boosting employee morale also improve the bottom line?

Gary: Twenty-six years in business tell us that engaged employees don’t just create a better office, they build a better business. Our values-driven culture makes us better innovators, higher performers and stronger brand advocates.

As a private company we don’t disclose revenues, but we are very proud of the 17 percent, 10-year compounded annual growth rate that’s kept us a category leader as the bar aisle has exploded. We credit our culture and our people — they are our competitive advantage.

Q: You have remained independent and launched an employee stock ownership program. What’s behind those decisions?

A: Gary: The decision not to sell was momentarily agonizing, but ultimately simple. We knew that we could do more good with this company than with the $120 million on the table. Since that decision to walk away from that buyout, we’ve purchased 880 million tons of organic ingredients, built a carbon-neutral business, and now employ more than 1,200 people — who have donated 100,000 volunteer hours to their communities. That’s far more than two people could have done with a whole lot of cash. Business can be a force for good in this world.

A: Kit: Both our parents worked and retired in the days of pensions. Those days have passed. We wanted to create a retirement benefit that could bring a similar kind of value and security to the people who’ve invested their hard work and smarts in this business for many years. So in 2010 we sold 20 percent of our shares in Clif Bar to employees to create an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Last year, we extended ownership to an additional 600 people at our new bakeries in Indianapolis and Twin Falls, Idaho.

Q: What should other companies know if they are considering employee ownership?

Kit: We’d tell companies who are considering employee ownership to recognize that it’s more than a benefit; it’s a reflection of your values and it can create a powerful shift in culture. We have always been fortunate to have creative, passionate people working with us at Clif Bar, but the ownership mindset has fueled an even greater sense of shared purpose.

Q: Articles about the U.S. gender pay gap are posted on your website, included one targeted at women headlined: “Your worth is worth negotiating.” How do you ensure salary parity?

Kit: Clif Bar &Co. has always championed equal opportunity and equal pay — it’s a fundamental part of sustaining our people. We’re committed to an annual salary review that uses internal and external benchmarks to be sure we’re meeting the mark. At our Twin Falls and Indianapolis Clif Bar Baking Companies, we are not only committed to equal pay, but to ensuring all Clif Bar Baking Company employees are paid a living wage.

Q: How does the Clif Bar picture look in terms of diversity?

Kit: We are very proud of our diverse workforce and celebrate the fact that 50 percent of our leadership positions are filled by women and a third of our Emeryville team are people of color. And we’re going to stay focused on doing an even better job of recruiting and retaining a workforce that represents the diversity of the Bay Area.

Q: Let’s talk products. What is the latest Zbar? What else is new?

Gary: As parents, we knew the challenge of finding snacks for busy kids that they would enjoy and we’d feel equally great about. Zbar was our answer. Our vision was to pair wholesome sustainable ingredients with kid-friendly flavors, but without all the junk like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. Last year we took Zbar to the next level by filling our soft baked organic oat bars with creamy nut butter filling to create Zbar Filled (Chocolate filled with Peanut Butter, Double Peanut Butter, and Apple filled with Almond Butter).

This year we ventured into breakfast with Clif Energy Granola. The flavors are inspired by your favorite Clif Bars, but our granola is unique in the cereal aisle. We’ve made a whole host of ingredient choices that add up to a granola that works for a variety of eaters: vegan friendly, gluten free, organic, low glycemic. This summer we also introduced Clif Sweet and Salty and Clif Fruit Smoothie-filled bars — both unique in the category and totally delicious.

Q: Oh, and what are your personal favorite Clif Bars or other products?

Gary: I like every product we make. Still, for sentimental reasons, I gravitate to Apricot Clif Bars. Apricot was the first flavor Mom and I made in her kitchen in 1991.

Kit: When asked this question I feel like I’m choosing between my children, which do I like best? But here goes … When I’m out backpacking, I’ll pack Clif Bars. For walks, I will take a Clif Nut Butter Filled or a Zbar. Luna Rica is my go-to in the afternoons — I love the mix of almond butter and dates. And if I need a snack to get through until dinner, I’ll reach for Luna Protein.

5 things to know about Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford

Gary is a trumpet player and performs with the company band, The Grove Valve Orchestra, named “Best Corporate Band in America” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Kit trained as a dancer and choreographer.

Cycled Italy’s formidable Passo Gavia together last summer.

Started Clif Family Winery &Farm in St. Helena to celebrate their love of food, wine and organic agriculture.

Named the Clif Bar after Erickson’s father, Clifford.

 

By Linda Zavoral, Mercury News

 

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