Skip to main content

Catching up with Clif Bar & Company's CEO

An interview with Clif Bar & Company CEO, Kevin Cleary

Not many workplaces pay employees to get fit or volunteer in their community on company time, but not many workplaces are like Clif Bar & Company. The energy-and-protein-bar maker puts a lot into its culture, and the company’s results suggest it’s worth it: consumers recently voted Clif Bar as the most trusted energy bar brand in Canada, in a BrandSpark poll.

Headquartered in Emeryville, Calif., Clif Bar has several Canadian connections: it sources organic oats and produces some of its products here, and will soon launch two more products in Canada. Its CEO, Kevin Cleary, (pictured) recently chatted with Canadian Grocer about the pros of being a private business, the smart way to get into new categories and how intuition can trump focus groups.

Which product launches do you have coming up in Canada?

One is Clif Kid Zbar, which is a new category for Clif Bar in Canada; it’s a whole-grain energy snack designed for kids. It’s made with organic oats from Canada. The other product is Clif Organic Trail Mix Bar with ingredients like nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. It’s gluten free and it’s made in Canada. It’s built on consumers’ desire for more simple ingredients. Both of these products are organic certified through Quality Assurance International, a third-party certifier. The certification ensures that the product meets U.S. Department of Agriculture and Canadian Food Inspection Agency organic standards.

What are Canadians looking for in healthy foods today?

One trend is organic. More than half of Canadian consumers buy organic products every week. People want–and there’s a greater awareness about– organic, because it’s healthy for people and the planet.

Another trend our lives are getting busier. The idea of eating three meals a day has been tossed out the window. Some studies suggest people are eating three to five times between breakfast and lunch. The way people eat is really changing.

The third trend with our Canadian consumers is a greater focus on some areas in “free from,” such as gluten free. People are also looking for foods with no toxic fertilizers or pesticides.

Entering new categories is tough. Have you had any growing pains doing so? What did they teach you?

We launched Clif Quench–it was an electrolyte drink–in 2009. By the time we got the product out, we had so many hands in it that we looked at it and were like, ‘What exactly is that?’ We’d lost our way during its development. to be really tight on what we’re delivering upfront and the new benefit we’re delivering to people. Then, as we go through that process, we’re constantly checking to make sure we’re being true to that original intent.

Clif Bar’s owners could have sold the company previously, but chose against it. How does being private give you an edge?

It allows us to chart our own path and do the right thing at every turn. When we organic ingredients in 2003, it was long before we thought it would be a great tool for selling product. We did it because it was the right thing to do for the planet.

Being private, we can also manage for the long term. We don’t have a bunch of investors saying, ‘What does your next quarter look like?’ As Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford tell me, ‘Kevin, you’re managing a business for the next five to 10 years, not for the next quarter.’

Which tool is overrated when it comes to crafting food products?

There’s too great a reliance on focus groups. We do some of those things, but we’re athletes here–I bike, we’ve got runners, marathoners, a professional kayaker–so we are our target market. We also rely a lot on our own intuition.

Clif Bar puts a lot of emphasis on creating a healthy work/life balance for its employees. What are some of the things you offer them? Our belief is that happy people do way better work. We encourage every employee to contribute a minimum of 20 hours a year of company time to doing a community service. I coach my kids’ baseball and soccer teams.

And we have a gym and everyone is paid a half-hour a day to work out. We also have services to make people’s lives easier, such as dry cleaning and haircuts.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds