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Employee Engagement for Purpose-Driven Business 101 (or 5 Reasons Clif Bar Employees Are So Damn Happy)

Image credit: Clif Bar

While more and more companies are becoming focused on a triple bottom line — in which they prioritize the health of people and planet in addition to profit — Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson took the sentiment further back in 2000, when he decided to not take a $120 million payout and instead focus on sustaining the health of five bottom lines: Business, Brand, Community, Planet and People.

As CEO Kevin Cleary said during a recent “Feed Your Adventure” tour of Clif’s Emeryville headquarters: “In any given year, we incent ourselves and say we have to deliver on all of them — if you deliver on Business, but you don’t deliver on the rest, that isn’t delivering shareholder value.”

Here are just a few ways that the still-small (roughly 400 employees) family- and employee-owned company is taking care of its own while taking care of …

1. Business

Clif’s focus on the wellbeing of all of its stakeholders has not only created an impressively high employee retention rate (roughly 5 percent turnover, versus a roughly 15 percent industry average), Cleary credits it with the company’s steady growth and success: The CEO said when he joined the company in 2004, Clif had about 16 percent market share, while its closest competitors — Power Bar and Balance Bar, having been bought by Nestlé and Kraft, respectively in 1999-2000 — had the resources alone to leave Clif in the dust. Fast-forward 11 years, and Clif now has 34 percent of the market, while the big guys’ share has declined.

2. Brand

Clif’s mission is to feed your adventure, whatever it may be. The company was formally launched in 1992 after Erickson, an avid long-distance cyclist, took it upon himself to create a better-tasting, wholesome alternative to the unappetizing, sticky, hard-to-digest bars of the day. An instant hit with cyclists and climbers, Clif bars were first distributed at bike shops, outdoor stores and natural food retailers. Today, Clif Bars have become synonymous with “energy bar,” but also with health, outdoor recreation and adventure — they're not only embedded in the company culture, Clif also sponsors inspiring athletes all over the world, while aiming to inspire its customers to get outdoors, stay active, and celebrate the beauty in the world.

3. Community

Established in 2006, the Clif Bar Family Foundation supports hundreds of innovative small and mid-sized nonprofits working to strengthen our food system and communities, enhance public health, and safeguard our environment and natural resources (see more in ‘Planet,’ below). Also, the company incents its employees to give back, with a goal of 10,400 volunteer service hours on company time, or the equivalent of five people working full-time in the community, per year.

4. Planet

Clif’s commitment to organic began in 2003. As organic farming uses no toxic chemicals and pesticides, and a lot fewer petroleum-based inputs, Cleary said they realized that was the #1 thing Clif could do as a food company to reduce its impact on the world; this year’s goal is to reach 76 percent organic ingredients, and 80 percent by 2020.

When Cleary was asked about further reducing Clif’s impact by sourcing ingredients locally, he acknowledged that it’s done when possible From there, Clif buys local when possible — it now sources its almonds, a key ingredient, from California’s Central Valley, and is looking for growers of organic oats in Twin Falls, Idaho (where Clif’s newest sustainable bakery is set to open in spring 2016). But with water and other challenges to local supply continuing to be a factor in California, Clif’s priority for the time being remains sourcing organic. As Matthew Dillon, Clif’s Director of Agricultural Policy & Programs, said during the tour, organic farming isn’t a be-all-end-all solution, but it’s currently the best solution, especially in terms of transparency.

In the meantime, the Clif Bar Family Foundation and the company’s Seed Matters initiative are investing in and researching various conservation and seed-saving programs. And on a smaller scale, the Clif Family Farm and winery in St. Helena recently implemented a hose irrigation system that has reduced water use by 75 percent.

Clif is also joining industry peers that are throwing their weight behind sea changes in business as usual: In June, as part of the Consumer Goods Forum, Clif pledged to strive to halve food waste within its operations by 40 percent by 2025; and last month, Clif was one of over 200 U.S. businesses to have vocally supported the Clean Power Plan in the months before its release last week. As Dillon said during the tour: “True success is measured by succession — are we leaving more value for the next generation?”

5. People

And, as I mentioned, Clif takes care of its own. According to Cleary: “On ‘People,’ we do different surveys to get a sense of how well we’re doing and is this a great place to work? What benefits people need and tracking those benefits over time.” Here are just a few of said benefits Clif employees enjoy:

  1. In-office childcare
  2. An in-office gym, complete with a climbing wall, a yogi, a personal trainer, a range of daily group exercise classes, and financial incentives for working out 30 minutes a day
  3. In-office chiropractic, acupuncture and massage services, as well as a multi-talented onsite barber (she doubled as the company’s photographer during our tour) — just a few of the wellbeing-enhancing, time-saving conveniences that Cleary pointed to as evidence of the company’s efforts to “put time back into people’s pockets,” aka fostering work-life integration. A revolutionary concept, to be sure, Clif understands that many common daily preoccupations (errands, childcare, health and fitness, etc) and the stress associated with them take our time and attention away from our work.  Therefore, any measures that companies take to acknowledge this and attempt to make employees’ lives easier can only serve to, in turn, foster productivity, job satisfaction and loyalty.
  4. $1,000 a year toward home energy-efficiency upgrades
  5. $6,500 toward a fuel-efficient (such as hybrid or electric) vehicle
  6. A six-week paid sabbatical after seven years at the company 

When Cleary was asked if he thought a larger company with shareholders to answer to could be run the same way as Clif, he said: "The answer is absolutely yes. Yeah, it takes courage and it’s going to be a little bit of a bumpy road. But do I think big companies can be run like this? Yes — if for no other reason [than] the engagement it creates, and the excitement and the energy it creates in your team. So you can take that 80 percent [of unsatisfied employees] and flip it, and all of a sudden be able to say 90 percent of people say this is a great place to work.

“I do not understand why more companies don’t get it. Working for [a company] that means something, that’s trying to do something important in the world, is what it’s all about," he asserted. "Because otherwise, you’re dealing with that 80 percent of people who just do not want to be there! I’m glad it’s them, not us, because that gives us a fighting chance for 400 people to take on some of the behemoths.”


Jennifer Elks is Managing Editor at Sustainable Brands. She is a writer, editor and foodie who is passionate about improving food systems, closing loops and creating more livable cities. She loves cooking, wine, cooking with wine, correcting spelling errors in… [Read more about Jennifer Elks]


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