In 2000, Gary Erickson, founder and CEO of Clif Bar, was on the verge of taking a $100 million offer to sell his eight-year-old energy-bar company. At the eleventh hour, however, he decided it was an offer he had to refuse.

“I realized that this was something that I could commit myself to for a long time,” Erickson recalls. “Clif Bar was such a great business and community that I felt like it was my calling. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do this and also get everything I wanted out of life.”

Erickson would not come to regret his change of heart.

Since its launch in 1992, Berkeley, Calif.-based Clif Bar has grown from a $700,000 operation to a $100 million company that has never seen an unprofitable year. Its namesake energy bar is the second-best selling in a $700 million market (just behind Nestle’s PowerBar). Even more surprising is that the company has achieved this success without accepting a dime from venture-capital funding.

“These numbers should blow Wall Street away,” Erickson says. “It’s something most venture capitalists don’t believe is possible. We’ve proven that it is.”

So what is the secret behind their success? Like most winning workplaces, Clif Bar takes the relatively unorthodox approach of eschewing focus on short-term profits in favor of five key sustainability initiatives: its people, its brands, its community, the planet, and, finally, its business.

“Part of the unspoken philosophy seems to be that the bottom line isn’t necessarily the most important thing,” says Michael Locher, manufacturing assistant. “It’s not exactly the mission to maximize the bottom line. We’re encouraged to dedicate time to personal satisfaction or community service or health or recreation.

“Is it possible to be more productive without all those things? Probably, but we wouldn’t be as happy and productive in the long run.”

Though it may not come as a surprise that a company manufacturing energy and nutrition foods should emphasize health and well-being, Clif Bar manages to take it up another notch.

In addition to offering flex scheduling, Clif Bar suggests employees who have worked at the company for seven years to take a three month paid sabbatical, with the option to extend it for another three months unpaid. The entire company shuts down for a week between Christmas and New Years so workers do not feel pressured to come in or uncomfortable asking for time off.

Employees are also encouraged to bring their children and even dogs to work, and they have access to concierge services that allow them to get errands done during the day without having to leave work.

The company has built a state-of-the-art fitness center on site that offers free exercise classes and personal trainers. Employees are given a half hour of paid time to workout everyday. It took executive assistant Terrye Parker a couple of years before she finally decided to take advantage of the gym, and now she is hooked.

“For me it’s a big turnaround because I’m not one to work out,” Parker says. “But there’s something about being here and being around people who are so gung ho about exercising. Now I’m in the gym maybe three or four days a week.”

Parker also takes advantage of many company-sponsored classes through Clif Bar’s career development center, launched last year. She has enrolled in classes ranging from computer training to an after-work Spanish language class, which she takes for fun.

Employee participation in most of the company’s programs is 90 percent or higher, a testament to the success of Clif Bar’s workplace initiatives. One of the most popular projects is the 2080 volunteer program, so called for the number of hours one employee would achieve volunteering full-time for a year. Employees are encouraged to volunteer on company time either on their own or as part of group events organized by the company.

Sustainability has also become one of the company’s foremost priorities. They have reverted to environmentally-friendly methods of packaging their products and found ways to incorporate organic ingredients without compromising quality. Clif Bar also sponsors a wind farm based in South Dakota and has purchased an amount of energy equivalent to the company’s average carbon dioxide output from bakery and office operations and business travel. Next on Clif Bar’s agenda is funding a tree-planting project that will replant about 1,000 trees in fire-ravaged areas of southern California. The plantings are intended to offset the amount of carbon dioxide produced by Clif Bar employees commuting to and from work. The company hopes that the two projects combined will offset the majority of the carbon dioxide that Clif Bar produces as a whole.

Clif Bar prides itself on its laid back office culture, but the company’s vision and goals are anything but laid back. “Our policies are very brief,” says David Jericoff, vice president of human resources. “The employee handbook is about 20 pages. This is consistent with Gary’s philosophy of the company: If you’re clear on your vision and your aspirations and where you want the company to go, you don’t need to legislate chapter and verse. Hire people you trust, treat them well, and they’ll do a good job.”

Obviously Erickson’s philosophy has worked for the company. The voluntary turnover rate at Clif Bar is about 3 percent compared to an industry average of 11.5 percent. In the past two years, only two employees have voluntarily left, one to pursue an MBA and the other to get married.

As the company continues to expand, it will have to deal with growing pains and trying to maintain the close sense of community. In characteristic Berkeley fashion, however, Erickson is not too worried.

“I think there’s always this feeling of the good ol’ days,” he says, “but a lot of times that’s kind of like wanting to go back to college or high school. One, it’s not possible and two, there’s a time for that and a there’s a time to move on.

“There are things we do better now than we ever could have done back then. We’re a much more mature company, but at the same time we’re doing more now for employees, for the community, and for the earth. I’m actually having a lot more fun than I was even five or 10 years ago.”

And isn’t that the bottom line to a winning workplace?

Company: Clif Bar, Inc.
Web Site:
Industry: Health foods
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Number of employees: 147
Sales: $100 million