One-on-One: Gary Erickson of Clif Bar and Co.

Food Processing's Diane Toops catches up with Gary Erickson, founder, co-owner and co-CEO, Clif Bar & Co.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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A decade ago, struggling under a mountain of debt after deciding to remain independent, Emeryville, Calif.-based Clif Bar & Co. founder, CEO, and co-owner (with his wife Kit), entrepreneur and outdoorsman Gary Erickson, made a visionary (and some would say risky financial) commitment to sustainability. But he proved that going green could get the the company out of the red.
 
Although there have been tough times, the company's vision has not wavered. It has milestones aplenty beginning with its flagship Clif Bar, the first energy bar certified, "Made with Organic" at retail in 2003. To date, the company has purchased more than 170 million pounds of organic ingredients, supporting organic farmers across the globe. Clif Bar & Co. offset its entire historic carbon footprint in 2007, installed the largest "smart" solar array in North America on its new headquarters in 2011. And in 2001, was one of the first companies to hire an ecologist Elysa Hammond, now Director of Environmental Stewardship.  

It's no surprise Clif Bar & Co. is ranked the No. 1 brand in the Forbes Breakaway Brands survey, conducted by Landor Associates using Young & Rubicam's BrandAsset Valuator database measuring brand momentum from 2006 to 2009.
 
FP: Could you tell us about your company and its brands?

GE: Clif Bar & Co. is an employee and family-owned company that makes nutritious and organic foods and drinks. We have seven different brands -- Clif Bar, Luna, Clif Kid, Clif Crunch, Clif Mojo, Clif Builder's and Clif Shot. We're focused on sports nutrition and healthy snacks, and in 2004, Kit and I extended ourselves to pursue our lifelong passion of wine and gourmet food through the Clif Family Winery & Farm.

FP: What was your epiphany for the first clif bar?

GE: My epiphany moment came back in 1990 when I was on a day-long, 175-mile bike ride with my buddy Jay. I was exhausted and hungry and realized I couldn't choke down another tasteless energy bar. It was in that moment, that I realized I could make something better. After many months of hard work and countless hours in my mom's kitchen, the first Clif Bar became a reality.  

FP: Clif Bar was one of the innovators in bringing organic ingredients to market. Why did you make that decision?

GE: Kit (my wife and co-owner and co-CEO of Clif Bar & Co.) and I both grew up spending a lot of time in the outdoors backpacking, skiing, cycling, hiking and climbing. Through these activities we developed a deep appreciation for the outdoors and the environment, and we became committed to reducing our footprint on the planet. We carry this same philosophy to our business, which includes how we make our food. We transitioned Clif Bar to 70 percent organic ingredients in 2003 before organic had really taken off. It wasn't easy to do and it wasn't cheap to do, but it was the right thing to do. Now, we use organic ingredients in all of out products, and to date, we have purchased over 170 million pounds of organic ingredients. As a food company, sourcing organic ingredients was one of the most impactful ways we could reduce our impact on the planet.

FP: Consumers want clean labels, what else are they looking for?

GE: Our consumers always tell us they want variety. That's why we're constantly listening to their feedback and innovating in our kitchen.

FP: Ten years ago, struggling under a mountain of debt, why did you decide to remain independent?

GE: We chose to remain an independent, privately held company because it gives us freedom and flexibility. We're able to do business differently and to focus on the things that are important to us.

FP: When did you decide to make a commitment to sustainability, and why?

GE: This year marks the 10th anniversary of our commitment to sustainability, which affects all parts of our business, from where we work, to how we make our food, and the impact we have on the planet. As I mentioned, Kit and I love the outdoors and our appreciation for the environment grew out of this love. With this in mind, we want to limit our footprint on the planet and protect the places where we play.

FP: Could you tell us about your smart solar array?

GE: We installed a 'smart' solar array on the roof and parking structure of Clif Bar's new headquarters in Emeryville. At the time of our opening the smart solar array was the largest in North America. It will provide nearly 100 percent of the office electricity needs. 'Smart' solar arrays are an emerging trend in solar technology. They optimize output and reduce costs by integrating monitors onto individual solar panels. In addition to the smart solar array, we have solar thermal panels on the headquarters roof, which provide 70 percent of the heat needed for hot water.

FP: What are the company's aspirations?

GE: Unlike most companies, which have one bottom line, Clif Bar has five bottom lines: sustaining our business, brands, people, community and the planet. All five of these goals, which Kit and I refer to as the 'Five Aspirations,' are of equal importance. At Clif Bar, business decisions are made with thoughtful consideration to each of these five areas. 

FP: Where do you get your ideas for new products?

GE: We love to play in the kitchen to come up with new products and flavors. We're always trying to find ways to combine what we're good at with what our customers want. For example, we have a new product, Luna Protein, a delicious protein bar with 12g of protein in every bar for women. People are just going crazy over it!
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