Since founding his energy-bar company after a 175-mile bicycle ride, Gary Erickson has fiercely prioritized Clif Bar's independence for 30 years. Until this week.
Mondelez International will acquire Clif Bar in a deal that will amount to at least $2.9 billion, the company announced Monday.
It's shocking news from a business that has turned down so many acquisition offers over its lifetime that Erickson told me in 2018 he hadn't just lost track, but was purposefully unaware how many there had been. (His staff had been instructed not to pass on messages to him from potential buyers.)
Earlier in the company's history, he threw himself, and the entire company, into massive debt to avoid an acquisition. By 1998, Clif Bar--named after Erickson's father, Clifford--had been growing so fast it landed at No. 152 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. But by 2000, his business partner Lisa Thomas decided she wanted to leave the company--and a well-timed acquisition offer would facilitate that. On the cusp of signing the $120 million deal, Erikson pulled out, plummeting himself into $60 million in debt.
After taking what he called "the gamble of the century," Erickson led Clif Bar to become one of the country's pioneering purpose-driven businesses, dedicated to not one bottom line, but rather five pillars of success that include sustaining people, community, the planet, the brand, and the business. He strove to create green production facilities, pay employees well in salary and benefits--and in 2010 made them owners of the company, too, by adopting an employee stock ownership plan that pays annual dividends.
Erickson and his wife and business partner, Kit Crawford, as of a few years ago, owned 80 percent of Clif Bar. Despite handing over their co-CEO titles in 2013, the pair have been actively involved in every major company decision. As for the board of directors? They alone made up the board.
"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 times," Crawford told me in 2018. "I think she's saying we are control freaks," Erickson joked. Both declined to comment on the acquisition news this week.
Now they are giving up some of that control for good. But they may not be abandoning the "Five Aspirations" that guide it. In fact, in a release announcing the acquisition, Clif Bar's CEO since mid-2020, Sally Grimes, said: "Our purposes and cultures are aligned and being part of a global snacking company with broad product offerings can help us accelerate our growth while staying true to our deeply ingrained Five Aspirations--sustaining our people, planet, community, business, and brands." Certainly, the "people" portion of it--the employees who own 20 percent of the company--will benefit substantially.
Crawford, Erickson, and Grimes likely made the decision not just for the upside for more than 1,200 employees, but also to continue the brand's growth. "Business" and "community" are focuses of the acquisition too. The international snack brand Mondelez--which also owns the Oreo, Ritz, and Honey Maid brands, among many others--can use its distribution prowess to expand internationally and within the U.S. Plus, the communities where Clif Bar is made will not lose out. Mondelez said in its release on the acquisition that it would continue to operate the business from its existing headquarters in Emeryville, California, and green-manufacturing facilities in Idaho and Indiana.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include that Clif Bar's founders declined to comment on the acquisition news.