Review / San Francisco

Read it: ‘Raising the Bar – The Story of Clif Bar, Inc.’ by Gary Erickson

I was exploring Valencia Street a few weekends ago when I came across a bin of used books outside Dog Eared Books. Looking for something inspirational and/or educational, ‘Raising the Bar – The Story of Clif Bar Inc.’ caught my attention. I wasn’t sure how fluffy it would be about biking riding and business ideals, but I ended up really enjoying my time with Gary Erickson as I read about his ‘integrity and passion in life and business.’ His journey and words were validating, educational, and inspiring to my own pursuit of authenticity in life and business.

If you were to put me on the spot about what impacted me from the book (without the book in hand) I would say being a leader that follows through on intuition, tendencies, and recognized needs, ‘the white road’ philosophy, and creating genuine demand.

 Leadership: Gary takes back the company

Clif Bar Inc. was close to selling in 2000. The pen and paper to make the deal happen were in the same building, until Gary took a walk and listened to his inside voice telling him it was the wrong decision. Staying private led to Gary’s partner’s resignation and Gary became the CEO of a company with confused and agitated employees. Employees later refer to it as the time when Clif Bar, Inc lost its ‘mojo,’ but Gary knew the values he wanted his company to hold and was able to recognize and implement the changes to bring them back. Some steps to making it happen:

Journaling – Gary refers a lot to journaling which I love and think is so important. Creative and strategic minds are constantly flowing with ideas and hunches that need to be externalized so they can be realized or released. Documentation can either provide a launching pad for thoughts or a place for them to be stored, allowing the freedom to move forward and come back if needed. Gary made a list of forty-three ideas in his journal, and continued to journal about them.

Action – Gary took the list of changes that needed to happen and acted on them. He writes he initiated a lot of programs, meetings, activities, etc and I would be interested to know more about that process since follow through is the achilles heel of most companies: what made things sticky, how did he sell through ideas, and who took ownership. I image many attempted ideas for change dissolved, but the ones that fit needs were sustained through a leader and committed employees. Gary’s combination of thinking and doing leaves an impact. It is so important to not get paralyzed in indecision or fear of failure. You have to start somewhere on the list and as you move through it, either fully realize or release the ideas. I think it is okay to test the waters, but you can’t half-assed things long term though or you will lose people. Some of the list rolls up to:

  • Do We Have the Right People?
  • Communication and Trust
  • Processes and People
  • Personal Learning


The White Road

You won’t learn about the ‘white road/red road’ philosophy in school or read about it in a text book. It is a philosophy derived from Gary’s personal experiences that, I think, articulates a way of business that is difficult to put in words. The red road, similarly alighted to ‘corporate,’ is a more aggressive path of company profitability and planning, while the white road operates more like a start up with adventures of uncertainty and priorities beyond profitability. The metaphor of the white road comes from one of Gary’s biking trips in Europe where he and his traveling partner decided to take the white roads on their maps, rather than the red. The red would get them from A to B in in the fastest, most efficient way possible and were more touristy. The white roads were less traveled and passed through country and cliff sides, providing authentic experiences with locals and creative maneuvering with unexpected outcomes. The white road is not for everyone, but it is for entrepreneurs who believe in building a business of integrity and passion over the financial bottom line.

‘… by day three our mantra became ‘ride the white road.’ white roads held adventure as well as the most spectacular views. We met people face-to-face rather than at tour bus stops or gas stations. On our Col Ferret day we pushed the white-road journey to another level. We connected a white road with another white road by dirt trail, even though it meant walking with our bikes on our backs.’

I desire the white road because I want to build quality products, invest in people and have fun. Some may think it is a path of ignorance or denial, but it is about healthy priorities. It is asking who is benefiting from increased profits (executive bonuses, research and development budgets, employee programs, community projects, etc) and whether your connections with people and resources have legs. The white road is not about the fluff of being loose or pursuing a feeling. It does require a foundational map of where paths come from and where they may go. They will look different from company to company, but all have a core of authenticity and purpose.

‘Our white road company has not one but five reasons for being: sustaining our brands, our company, our people, our community, and our planet. These five elements form an interconnected system, the Clif Bar ecosystem. We take great care with each part of the Clif ecosystem. Sustaining our people, one of the aspirations, is not a means to an end (profit or maximizing shareholder value), but a value in and of itself.’

Natural vs Artificial Demand

‘We listen attentively to consumers to tap natural demand. We strive to follow natural demand rather than create artificial demand through massive advertising campaigns.’

One of my preferred forms of marketing is getting outside your distribution channel or place of service and doing what you do where you can connect with your current and potential consumers. You can call it grass root marketing or demoing or ________ but it has to be authentic and relevant. By showing your product, sharing your cause and listening to needs you get to know your consumers and they get to know you. You build a genuine connection. It is difficult though. Your employees have to be knowledgeable [trustworthy] and relational [likable] [‘Enchantment‘ review] and you need a story. Clif Bar Inc has that. When they sponsor a marathon, those on the frontline handing out products run marathons and they use the products and know why. They aren’t trying to sell anything, they just want to share because they believe. When the runners share their wants, needs, and stories back employees listen and communicate to the company what they hear. I’ll bet it is a lot of work, but it shapes the white road and enables consumers to be their best.

I encourage you to read the rest of ‘Raising the Bar.’ The read is relatively quick and there is additional content on product development, sustainability and more. Plus, when you see or consume Clif Bar products you feel a little inspired and special because you know you are part of their ecosystem. Buy Here


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