On April 17, 2000, Gary Erickson told his wife, Kit Crawford, he needed to go for a walk.

He'd spent the past three months in a haze--he was starting to realize that much. This day had seemed inevitable, and he'd let himself float toward it, not fighting, nor even resisting. In an hour, he was scheduled to meet with his business partner and representatives from Quaker Oats--along with both parties' legal teams--that would put the final seal on an acquisition that would make him tremendously wealthy. The final price tag was $120 million.

Between growing pains over recent years, and ownership conflict with his equal business partner, some part of the acquisition had felt like it might be a relief. It was a reasonable decision, he knew: His company's biggest competitor, PowerBar, had earlier in the year been acquired by Nestle. Erickson knew the logical thing that he was supposed to do in this moment was get in the car and go sign his name on the dotted line.

He couldn't do it. "I walked around the block and had a moment of clarity, and said, 'this is not the time; this is not right,'" Erickson later recalled. It was a company he'd built from scratch--and one he'd crafted using his mother's kitchen and given his father's name. He knew in a moment: There was no way he was letting it go.

He called Crawford and told her he would not be selling Clif Bar.

'The Gamble of the Century'

Clif Bar had been Gary Erickson's life for precisely one decade. Erickson had, back in 1990 in Berkeley, California, been working in a bicycle factory, making bike seats. In his spare time, he raced bicycles, and inhaled energy bars.

In 1990, he was out on a 175-mile day ride with a friend. He'd eaten five Power Bars during the ride. By the time he was hungry again, he pulled out the sixth bar, and just couldn't stomach it. He said, "no way." He turned to his friend and said, "I can make a better energy bar than this."

For the next six months, he and his Greek mother experimented with baking whole-food ingredient bars that didn't contain refined sugar or butter. What was born was Clif Bar, later named after Erickson's father, Clifford. (Who at one point contributed $20,000 in credit card debt to his son's efforts.)

The younger Erickson handed out bars at races, marathons, and bike events, and kept his factory job for as long as he could. He slept in a garage, and put his salary into making deals for his fledgling company with manufacturers and distributors. He shipped the first 30,000 bars out in February of 1992--right as an economic recession was lifting. Sales totaled $700,000 in the first year--and climbed to $1.2 million in the second. The recession was subsiding, and sales roughly doubled every year. Out of the San Francisco Bay area, a healthy little company was taking shape.

But as years passed, there were growing pains. He and his business partner, Lisa Thomas, who owned half the company, didn't always see eye-to-eye. And by 2000, she wanted to sell. Erickson couldn't disagree with her logic: the timing seemed right, and, hey, this is what companies like his seemed to do at about this size. But when he couldn't bring himself to sign away the company, the ramifications were severe.

Thomas still wanted out--and Erickson and his wife, Kit Crawford, who'd gone along with his plan to keep the company and was now his business partner, spent seven months negotiating how Thomas's exit would work. In the end, Erickson had to find $60 million to buy her out. His company was growing like crazy--but was only bringing in about $40 million a year.

"It was the gamble of the century," Erickson said. He took out high-interest bank loans, and put his trust in his teams' abilities to continue to grow Clif Bar.

Crawford said that while employees were initially confused by the flip-flop on selling, afterward, a renewed sense of purpose poured over the company. "Because we didn't sell to a big company, we stayed private, we had the opportunity to figure out how we wanted to be in the world, and what values we had as a company," she said. Perhaps they had so much debt it felt like a bottom line was laughable--so they set five bottom lines, now known as "Five Aspirations." They are all about sustainability: of the business, the brands, their people, their community, and their planet.

"Those became a lightning rod for our company," Crawford said.

Not that it was smooth sailing. Erickson and Crawford were still in debt when they decided to turn the entire company, and all of its products, organic--without raising prices. They took a risk by launching new products, including the Z Bar for kids, and a protein-packed Builders Bar. But growth did continue. And Erickson and his team never brought in outside investors again, even when sales numbers didn't hit expected marks and Erickson feared his bank would call in its notes.

"I don't know if it was naivete, or raw belief, or two individuals who had a high tolerance for risk," he said. "We didn't have anything to lose--just something to gain."

Today, Clif Bar is a company of 1,200 people based mostly in Emeryville, California. It routinely appears on "best places to work" lists for not only its sustainability-minded approach to doing business, but also for its dedication to giving employees time for family and community service. Its benefits are robust and include a generous 401(k) program, in which the company matches employee contributions up to 5 percent of their payroll, an on-site wellness center, and even cash toward the purchase of a bicycle ($500) or greener vehicle ($6500). In 2009, Clif Bar launched an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, for which the company pays annual dividends. Its value accrues and is eligible for disbursement to the employee at at 55, making it a retirement benefit. In this fashion, employees own 20 percent of the company.

The Very Private Future

Employee ownership is also part of the company's answer to the common justification for undergoing an initial public offering--something Erickson shudders to think about. It's common for companies to naturally progress toward an IPO, in part, to reward their longtime employees who own equity in the company.

Clif Bar isn't alone in eschewing IPO. In fact, it's part of a 20-year trend, in which the number of public companies has dropped by one-third, according to New York University Stern School of Business finance professor David Yermack. "There is a disappearance of public companies," says Yermack. "It seems to be a profound trend without much precedence in the past 100 years, that there is so much held in private hands."

But in the case of Clif Bar, he says it's unusual that a company would reach its size, estimated to be between $500 million and $1 billion in revenue--the company does not disclose its revenue--and not be listed on the public markets. 

Erickson and Crawford today share the title "co-chief visionary officer," after having promoted Kevin Cleary, who'd been with the company since 2004 and was already running operations, to CEO in 2013. Crawford and Erickson together still own 80 percent of Clif Bar, and take pride in being involved in every major decision the company makes--without having to answer even to a slate of advisors or board.

"Our board? No one outside this room," said Erickson into a speakerphone in September, while sitting near Crawford. On the same call, I'd asked them how many acquisition offers they'd received in the past 25 years, and they admitted cluelessness: "Oh our assistants and CFO know not to even tell us. We aren't interested," Erickson said.

"Gary and I have always been very sure about our feelings, and our passion, and our love for the company. We wanted to be the main decision makers at all time," Crawford explained, noting that anytime a company takes outside investment in exchange for equity--much less undergoes an acquisition--they are giving up a fraction of that control.

"I think she's saying we are control freaks," Erickson jokes.

As for adding investors, or going public in the future, they both chuckle out loud at that idea. "It's so far from anything we'd consider," Crawford says.

"You couldn't give me enough needles to poke my eyes out," Erickson says when presented with the idea of undergoing an IPO. "It's a lifestyle we couldn't live with." He means: being accountable to Wall Street and to whims of the market, rather than spending his time managing his employees and working on product. "I've never heard any founder happy with going public." 

Published on: Sep 24, 2018