Clif Bar CEO Kevin Cleary offers views about ‘Living Up to Your Brand Promise’

Kevin Cleary, Clif Bar & Company CEO, is the keynote speaker at North Bay Business Journal's Impact Marin Conference on March 2, 2017. (GARY QUACKENBUSH / FOR NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)



“We see our brand promise as something that must be constantly nurtured over time as a result of having created a different kind of work environment based on five core aspirations,” said Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar & Company. “Our employees are engaged, identify with our values and truly want to live up to our brand promise. If our people are happy, customers are happy.”

These aspirations focus on not one, but five, bottom lines that include having a sustainable business, brands, people, community and planet.

Cleary’s remarks came during his keynote address at the Impact Marin Conference sponsored by the North Bay Business Journal at the Embassy Suites Hotel on March 2 attended by more than 150 business leaders. He became CEO of Clif Bar & Company in 2013 and loves to talk about the key events leading up to its creation.

Clif Bar & Company was born on a bike.

In 1986, founder Gary Erickson was on a 175-mile ride with a friend on Mt. Hamilton near San Jose. At mile 125, after eating five Power Bars, Erikson was still hungry but could not bring himself to eat more. On the way down he had an epiphany – “I can make a better bar than that!”

Working in his mother’s kitchen for six months – she had previously developed recipes for Greek pastries Erikson sold in a small bakery he owned that had been losing $20,000 a year – Clif Bar was born, named for his father, Clifford.

After perfecting the recipe, he continued to work as a manager in a bicycle seat factory until the company was officially launched in 1992 using Erikson’s $1,000 in savings. Sales revenue reached $700,000 by the end of the first year. By 1999, revenue had skyrocketed to $39 million.

A year later the energy bar industry was in transition. In 2000, Power Bar was sold to Nestle Company, and Kraft Foods acquired Balance Bar.

Erikson and his partner received an offer from Quaker Oats to buy Clif Bar for $120 million, which would have given each $60 million. His partner wanted to sell, and so did Erikson at first.

But he changed his mind at the last minute – a decision he never regretted. The company later experienced double-digit compounded growth over a 12-year period in business.

Today Clif Bar & Company has a net worth of about $330 million, is independently owned, 80% by Erickson and his wife, Kit Crawford, with employees owning 20% through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) since 2010. The company produces more than a dozen energy bars and snacks now sold in 14 countries.

Employees identify with the brand

His remarks focused on the Emeryville-based company’s success at maintaining a strong brand position, which has also led to strong employees identification with that brand.

Cleary believes success is a result of having a well-defined, clear, concise and attractive brand promise that employees are aligned with – a promise that lives up to, or exceeds, customer expectations, while building trust and loyalty by consistently exemplifying Clif Bar’s five aspirations.

“I’ve seen surveys that show 70% of most workers are not engaged in their work. We polled our employees and 90% said they personally identify with Clif Bar and support our brand values. This gives us a competitive advantage in hiring and retention,” he observed.

“We want the best from our people, but I don’t believe having a work-life balance is the solution. It is really about work-life integration, offering employees flex-work schedules, putting more time back into people’s pockets, and by staying connected with what is important to them. We don’t just talk about our brand, we live it every day.”

This list of on-site perks that help employees save time includes having a barber and chiropractor come to Clif Bar, offering them 30 minutes a day to work out at the company gym, cycling to work and hosting Friday morning bike rides for everyone from 9 to 11 a.m.

“Some 15% of workers on average voluntarily turnover each year at other firms. Clif Bar has only seen three workers leave voluntarily. Having a highly desirable work environment has also made our people more productive.”

Community contributions emphasized

The company also emphasizes making a difference in the community.

“We incent everyone to contribute 20 hours a year, as a minimum, to donate their time to charities. Our 400 employees gave a total of 15,000 hours to benefit nonprofits in 2016. Some work in community gardens while others help distribute food to those in need. For me, it means leaving the office at 3:15 p.m. one day a week to attend Little League practice. We encourage our people to make this happen.”

A strong brand and a solid, engaged work force, combined with an early focus on organic ingredients, have produced long-term success for this company. Cleary said Clif Bar has used some 250 million pounds of organic ingredients to date.

“We incorporated organic ingredients in our products in 2002, when not too many people were going organic. This cost us a couple of margin points at first, but resulted in Clif Bar having a 32% market share in 2016, while market share among our competitors Balance Bar and Power Bar declined to 3% each. Back in 2000, when a decision was made to stay private, we had a 15% share, Balance Bar had 19% and Power Bar had 32%.”

“Some 15% of workers on average voluntarily turnover each year at other firms. Clif Bar has only seen three workers leave voluntarily. Having a highly desirable work environment has also made our people more productive.”

Cleary said Clif Bar’s mission from the start has been to “run a different kind of company, the kind of place we’d want to work, that makes the kind of food we’d like to eat, and that strives for a healthier, more sustainable world – the kind of world we’d like to pass on to our children,” quoting the company’s Co-Owner and Co-Chief Visionary Officer Kit Crawford.