Interview: ClifBar's Gary Erickson

Renaissance man turned business maverick shares his story

ClifBar founder Gary Erickson is a real renaissance man. The 50-year-old Californian grew up alpine skiing and hiking with his family, and his passion for the great outdoors has never wavered.

More at home on the slopes in the Sierras and Yosemite, the sometimes jazz trumpeter and former saddle maker and cookie baker struck gold with ClifBar, the company he co-founded with Lisa Thomas in 1992.

With ClifBar recently expanding the availability of its bars outside the USA, BikeRadar visited Erickson at his Berkeley, California headquarters to find out more about the adventurous person and learn more about why he continues to be passionate about yummy treats for outdoorsy types.

Before ClifBar, Erickson was a saddle designer with Palo Alto, California-based Avocet, a company that innovated in tyres, bike computers and saddles back in the 1980s. An epiphany involving six of another company’s energy bars had him thinking that there must be a better way to make a portable snack bar, and so ClifBar was born.

The explosive growth experienced by energy bar makers in the 1990s led to several buy-outs by 2000. But with a US$120 million offer on the table from Quaker Oats, Erickson listened to his gut and walked away, keeping ClifBar private and commanding the ship once Thomas asked to be bought out soon after.

Erickson and his wife Kit Crawford are the sole owners of ClifBar, named after Erickson's father.

ClifBar origins

BikeRadar: How did you make the transition from saddle maker to professional baker?

Gary Erickson: Part way through my career with Avocet, I started Kali's, a small wholesale bakery on the side in Emeryville. We distributed calzone-like product that came from my mother and grandmother's recipes, along with cookies that came from my grandmother.

We grew the business from US$20,000 to $300,000 in five years, but it wasn't sustainable for me. We never made money, but it lead to my epiphany ride.

In 1990, at mile 125 of an epic 175-mile day ride with my friend Jay Thomas, I gulped down my sixth Powerbar. Everyone was eating Powerbars then, because that's all that was available. Many considered them a bitter pill.

I thought 'I have a bakery - I could make something better than this!'

I worked with my mom to make something better than a cookie that was more energy bar. It was a unique formula then, and no one has really copied the formula; 16 years later our original ClifBar is still one of our best selling products.

BikeRadar: Is every ClifBar product made here in Berkeley?

Gary Erickson: Everything is made in Southern California.

On the bike

BikeRadar: Other than your famous epiphany ride that ignited the spark for ClifBar the company, tell us about other epic days on the bike for you.

Erickson in the Alps, mid 1980s

Gary Erickson: I've had many great days on the bike, but a few that really stand out were in the Alps and Pyrenees. Two of my most epic days were two days from Barcelonnette, France to the back side of Mount Blanc; all the cols ridden in the Tour de France. Some 225-mile consecutive days climbing 14,000 feet. We averaged 100 miles a day, climbing 11,000 feet a day during our 16-day trip.

We were absolutely fried each night, finding a place to sleep only once we rolled into town. The hospitality was amazing; the locals understood our passion for riding and appreciated our effort.

Riding buddy and friend Jay Thomas

We had eight-pound seat packs, using a mix of riding and hike-a-bike to get over non-rideable passes. We didn't realize we'd be dealing with glaciers!

My friend and I reminisced on a recent ride together, sharing stories about that ride 12 years ago.

BikeRadar: Tell us about your collection of bikes.

Gary Erickson: I have one of Thomas Frischknecht's World Champion Ritchey mountain bikes that I converted into a cyclo-cross bike; I have an original Palo Alto Bicycles bike that I used and stored in Europe. I had to bring it home because it's geared with six cogs in the back and 53/42 in front with down tube shifters.

Getting muddy in a Portland cyclo-cross race

I have several Orbeas because they sponsor our Luna team. I love their bikes, and I visited their factory in the Basque region of Spain last year.

I also have a Schwinn Paramount, DaVinci tandem with an independent coasting drivetrain, a few Santa Cruz Blur mountain bikes...

I'd like to find some classic bikes just for show. I'd like to have a nice representation of bikes from each decade starting with the 1920s. Not a lot has changed over the years with frame material and componentry.

[Actor] Robin Williams has me beat though - I hear he has over 60 bikes!

BikeRadar: What's an ideal ride for you, dirt or road?

Erickson in Italy

Gary Erickson: A combo of road and dirt on a road bike, where a 100-mile ride is 80 percent road, 20 percent dirt. There are several routes I use near my house that lets me enjoy this type of riding. I like getting away from cars and getting more adventurous. I use a standard road bike with 700x23c tyres, nothing special or different.

In the early 1980s we'd ride dirt on our road bikes with all the local guys - Jobst Brandt, Tom Ritchey, Greg LeMond. It was a great way to get through any section along the ride, and it improves your bike handling skills.

We rode dirt all the time; guys today don't quite understand. Off-road riding has to be on a mountain or 'cross bike for a lot of people, but riding dirt on road bikes is the most enjoyable for me just like it was nearly 30 years ago.

It helps to have the varied terrain and climate to do it on in the Bay Area.

ClifBarround the world

BikeRadar: You've recently began distributing ClifBar products in the UK. ClifBar sponsored international cycling teams for some time (US Postal, now Garmin-Chipotle), but didn't you already have international distribution in place? If not, are there plans to go global in the next few years?

Gary Erickson: We had a short-lived attempt to grow internationally in the 1990s, but we pulled back until we were ready. We just launched Clif Bars and Clif Blocks in the UK, so we're taking things one step at a time.

BikeRadar: Did you make it to the Giro or Tour de France this year? Garmin-Chipotle has been doing well.

Gary Erickson: Not this year, although I've been to the Tour and Giro in the past. I've been good friends with the owner of Selle Italia (they helped make our Avocet saddles), and shared a team car with him in the Giro on occasion.

BikeRadar: What's a typical day like for you?

Gary Erickson: Kit and I spend two full days here in the Berkeley office; we have a small office at St. Helena where we run the winery. Our farm takes some time to manage and we're growing that side of the business. Our daughter is doing more ski racing, so we're having a blast. We have key employees across the board that we trust at ClifBar, which frees us up to do what we do.

A friend asked me if I ever sleep! I sleep like a baby because I feel comfortable with how the businesses are arranged. I just enjoyed a 90-mile bike ride with Jay (Thomas, his longtime friend) in 106-degree heat, and I enjoy the flexibility to do that with the company.

BikeRadar: Still playing the trumpet or have you become more of a listening connoisseur?

Gary Erickson: I've been playing more lately than I have in years. I have to keep the music going. It's an eclectic thing, but I love it.

Erickson's garage home circa 1990, chock full of instruments, bikes and climbing gear

Successes & failures

BikeRadar: You spent 10 years as a saddle designer with Avocet. Tell us about that experience.

Gary Erickson: Avocet was one of the more educational work experiences I ever had, in business, product development and manufacturing.

It helped me a lot in developing and launching ClifBar from both a manufacturing and marketing and sales side. I attended trade shows, watched how we launched products.

Designing the first gel saddle at Avocet

It was a blast. We took an empty warehouse and turned it into a vertically integrated saddle manufacturer.

The only thing we didn't make in-house were the plastic shells, which we designed the molds. We foam injected, and stretched leather with 35 employees, 1,000 saddles a day. That's where the gel saddle was invented, in Union City, California. Avocet sold cycle computers, tyres, touring shoes, some clothing.

BikeRadar: What have been your biggest failures the past 22 years?

Gary Erickson: Given that ClifBar is in a really nice spot right now, it's easy to look back and see that our early legal structure was lacking. I get asked by other leaders about what to do in the early stages. Partnerships, bank agreements, legal contracts, distribution, it's all important.

In the beginning we wanted to be scrappy, but we overlooked the fundamentals that cost us in the long run.

[Erickson's original Kali's Bakery business partner Lisa Thomas asked to be bought out for US$62 million after the company didn't sell out to Quaker in 2000. Avocet and another early ClifBar distributor were paid nearly $2 million early in the game after snafus, nearly costing Erickson the company - Editor]

It's not a product or marketing mistake that hurts a company, it's the legal oversights that matter most. If companies would just spend a few hours with a lawyer to make sure their doing things correctly, they won't have things come back and bite them 10, 20 years later.

BikeRadar: Would you say the Luna Bar was the best thing to happen to ClifBar the past 10 years?

Gary Erickson: ClifBar was the original grand slam; Luna came out and originally felt like a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series!

Within three years Luna was outselling ClifBar. The low carbohydrate diet fad in the US threw us for a bit of a loop for a while, but it continues to do well.

We continue to diversify our products, and fortunately our foundation, the original ClifBar, is doing just as well as the new stuff.

BikeRadar: You've said that you and Kit don't plan to leave ClifBar, just let death be your exit strategy. Morbid question here, but what if death comes knocking tomorrow? Who gets the keys to this place?

Gary Erickson: We have an elaborate estate plan in place to keep ClifBar private, which is the most important thing. I believe the people here would appreciate our wishes to keep things going strong in the same vein as we over the years.

ClifBar owners Kit Crawford and her husband, Gary Erickson

Kit and I have put a lot of effort into this plan, working with a stable of people - bankers, lawyers, accountants - in the event of our passing to make sure ClifBar continues on in a healthy way.

Too many people default to selling a company when something bad happens; we'd rather see an attempt to keep ClifBar alive. It's hard work to keep a thriving company private; it's not an easy thing to plan an exit strategy because people generally are in denial with reality.

BikeRadar: ClifBar has 200-plus employees and annual sales of more than $150 million. Where do you take it from here? Is there anything resembling cruise control?

Gary Erickson: It's never cruise control, but it's also not about reaching a certain growth rate.

We keep growing because of the opportunities and because we love the thrill of it. It's exciting to compete, to create new products, new opportunities for the employees, and have an impact on the local community as well stay true to our environmental beliefs.

We want to be a model for other companies. We want to grow, and reinvent the product and company whenever necessary. The story continues.

For more information on Erickson's business background, read his 2004 book Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business.

Luna Chix Summit 2008

Gary Erickson's video speech to OIA Innovator's Award audience

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