Clif Bar’s Gary Erickson offers tips to small businesses

Clif Bar’s husband-wife co-owners, Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, right, with The Mountain Air’s co-owner, Wayne Patterson.
Clif Bar’s husband-wife co-owners, Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, right, with The Mountain Air’s co-owner, Wayne Patterson.

Gary Erickson has only visited San Luis Obispo a few times since graduating from Cal Poly with a business administration degree in 1980 and then launching Clif Bar, maker of organic energy bars and drinks, 12 years later.

He returned to town last weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of his former employers, The Mountain Air, a fledgling outdoor-gear store when Erickson worked there while a student at Cal Poly.

“I had worked since I was 14 in sporting goods and ski shops,” Erickson said during the event last week. “I walked into Mountain Air, and I said that I can tune skis, and I was literally working the next day.”

Years later, after Clif Bar had grown into a household name, Erickson said he returned to San Luis Obispo to speak to a group of Cal Poly business students “to tell them what a C student can do.” (He said he graduated with a 2.4 GPA.)

The success of his multimillion dollar company — named No. 4 on Fortune magazine’s 2015 list of best workplaces in manufacturing and production — didn’t come overnight.

After graduating, Erickson said he worked as a mountain guide in Yosemite, designed the first gel bicycle saddle while working for Palo Alto-based bicycle company Avocet and then, in 1986, founded Kali’s Bakery — named after his grandmother.

It was the latter company that laid the groundwork for Clif Bar, created when Erickson decided he could make a better energy bar than the ones he ate on a 175-mile bike ride. The Emeryville-based company, which remains family- and employee-owned, expanded beyond its original energy bar to create a range of other products, from the Luna bar — targeted toward women — to energy gels and recovery drinks.

In 2000, Erickson and Kit Crawford, his wife and Clif Bar co-owner, came close to selling the company for a reported $120 million to Quaker Oats. Instead, they kept the company private and eventually bought out their former partner.

We wanted to keep our company whether it succeeded or failed.

Gary Erickson, co-owner and founder of Clif Bar

“We wanted to keep our company whether it succeeded or failed,” Erickson said.

In 2013, Erickson handed over the CEO reins to Kevin Cleary, then the company’s president and chief operating officer. Erickson and Crawford now serve as co-chief visionary officers, in order to remain involved in big-picture planning, product development and core values.

“It means we have our fingers in all the pies at a certain level,” Crawford said.

The company is guided by five aspirations, according to its website: sustaining its business, brands, people, community and the planet.

It does so by putting organic ingredients and organic farming at the forefront of its sustainability efforts, diverting 85 percent of its office waste from local landfills through recycling and composting and promoting a work-life balance for employees with an on-site fitness center, flexible workweek, a sabbatical program and on-site child care. The company has about 390 employees worldwide, according to the Great Place to Work Institute.

When asked what advice they’d give to small-business owners, Crawford said to look for mentors. “I hear Gary say how he’s worked with all these family-owned business, and I think the values you get from them are really important,” she said.

Erickson was more blunt. “Don’t do 50-50 partnerships. Maybe you want to bring a partner on — but not 50 percent. We bought our partner out and all is fine now. But the company was under a lot of pressure (at that time) to grow and stay true to our core values and try to go organic.”

To those whose business is growing more quickly than expected, Crawford said, “I know a lot of people go out and get money (such as taking on investors) but more often than not, you lose control. We’re control freaks. Try to do it on your own through banks or loans.”

The couple also launched Clif Family Winery in Napa Valley in 2004, and opened a tasting room, Velo Vino, in 2011. Crawford also serves as president of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, founded in 2006.

When asked about his favorite rides in San Luis Obispo County, Erickson said he didn’t ride much during his time in SLO.

But he mentioned some Bay Area favorites — Mount Diablo, Mount Hamilton — and said his No. 1 favorite cycling destination is the Dolomites in Italy. He and Crawford recently lived there for a year and rode 250 days of the year.

Crawford said, “We called it our sabbatical year.”