In 2013, Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson and his wife, co-owner Kit Crawford, stepped away from their co-CEO roles, only to return last year. Here, Erickson and Crawford talk about what inspired them to return to Clif as they help write the company’s next chapter with a focus on its long-term values.
You’ve come back into the business again as co-CEOs. Why have you returned—and why now?
Gary Erickson: Kit and I feel fresh and excited about leading a new chapter of growth at Clif, and we’ve been struck by how relevant our values-based approach feels in this moment. Running a sustainable food company is about making intentional choices for the benefit of people and the planet. We’re committed to paying a living wage at our bakeries and investing in our organic farmers and their communities. We’re baking with organic plant-based ingredients and renewable energy. Every recipe starts with a nutrition purpose backed by the latest research, so that we’re using our expertise to meet a range of energy needs, instead of delivering on trendy claims.
You both have said many times that Clif is a values-driven company, and you talk specifically about being a Five Aspirations business. What do you mean by that?
Kit Crawford: Our values don’t just live on a conference room wall—they drive every decision we make. In fact, they are part of our business model. Instead of focusing on the one bottom line we’re all familiar with—profit—we measure success against our Five Aspirations. That means five bottom lines: sustaining our business, brands, people, community, and the planet. In the past, we’ve been careful not to talk too loudly or too often about such things. Better to keep our heads down and do the good work, was my working theory. But we understand there’s power in sharing our story. Earlier this month, we launched our first national TV advertising campaign, “Make It Good,” and it’s entirely dedicated to our values as a food company.
Clif Bar is family- and employee-owned. What is the value of independence as it relates to your business?
GE: Staying independent gave us the freedom to rethink everything. I can still remember the energy in the office after we turned down a $120 million buyout from Quaker Oats in 2000. It was buzzing with excitement about the idea of running a food company that valued business, brands, people, community, and the planet equally—a truly wild idea at the time.
KC: We took a margin hit to transition to organic ingredients during those lean years when we were under tremendous debt. There was no way to calculate ROI on hiring an ecologist to start a sustainability program. But we had the freedom to make those choices, and we have that same freedom today.
What can Clif do to further the idea of corporate responsibility when engaging with corporate peers, such as vendors, suppliers, and others?
GE: We’re realistic about the challenges facing our society and our planet. We’re not going this alone, which is an important emphasis in our “Make It Good” campaign. We hope to inspire others to take action because good doesn’t just happen on its own; we have to work together to make it good.
KC: Exactly. Collaboration is a powerful force for positive change. We run our own offices and bakeries using renewable energy and wanted to drive that commitment deeper into our supply chain. We created our “50/50 by 2020” program to help our suppliers transition to green power for the electricity they use for Clif Bar. To date, 44 supplier facilities have made the transition, taking advantage of the free expert consulting we offer to find green power solutions that make sense for their companies. This is exciting work.
What steps do you take to ensure that all employees represent Clif’s values?
KC: It’s important that we encourage our people to really live these values. All Clif employees have 20 hours of paid time off each year to volunteer in their communities. We also help out with the purchase of a bike or fuel-efficient vehicle, and then offer additional mileage incentives for green commuting. These benefits help make our company’s Community and Planet Aspirations more personal. That’s the power of our Five Aspirations business model—we’re all connected to a larger purpose and we can all contribute.
What are your biggest ambitions for the industry?
KC: It’s time for organic and sustainable ingredients to become the norm. I look at this as a human-rights issue, like access to clean air and water, and I don’t think that’s overstating the case. We need to create foods that are better for people, easier on the planet, and do more to return value to those who grow and make it. Organic helps connect those dots.
GE: We’re at a tipping point for organic to become a mainstream option. As the first organic energy bar, we need to continue to lead by example. This spring we challenged our category to go organic, with our support, via an open letter in the New York Times. We’re also spotlighting organic as part of our “Make It Good” campaign.
Given the crushing debt of student loans, it’s great to see Clif offering scholarships. What inspired you to start this?
GE: There are so many brilliant, passionate young people who want to make the world a better place. I know this because I’m a parent to a few of them, and I’ve had the privilege of spending time at my alma mater, Cal Poly. This C student was invited back as the 2017 graduation speaker. While I saw their motivation, I also learned that many young people felt pressured to take the first job that came along simply to pay down crushing student-loan debts. In the past year we introduced the “Clif Bar Business with Purpose Scholarship” to address the financial roadblocks facing college seniors graduating with debt. The goal is to help them explore their purpose and hopefully launch meaningful business careers.
Where do you see Clif in 10 years? 20? Are there new products in the pipeline that you’re excited about?
KC: We’re driven to rethink food for the better so we have a lot in our pipeline. We see a future where we continue to lead in bars and move into new categories. We craft food with a purpose, which means whether you’re running a marathon or you’re running a family, we have something that’s right for you.
This month we’re launching a new bar called CLIF Whole Lotta that is like nothing you’ve seen in the bar aisle. Whole Lotta is an organic fruit-nut-and-seed snack bar with added plant-based protein and no added sugar. It is a great example of how we’ve evolved beyond performance energy foods by adding snacks that are good for people and the planet. We’ve also recently entered the breakfast aisle with CLIF Energy Granola.
What do you want your legacy to be?
GE: I hope we’re remembered as advocates for the power of companies to return value beyond their own pockets. I see our past 20 years as evidence that running a values-driven food company wasn’t just the right thing to do, it’s been good business. I’d like to think that’s a lesson for the next generation of entrepreneurs looking to find purpose in business.
This article was created for and commissioned by Clif Bar.