Clif Bar is on A Wild Ride

A look into the two-year race that expanded organic food company Clif Bar—and how Todd Wilson’s IT team accelerated the transformation

“It was like jumping onto the end of a moving freight train, making your way to the front, and quickly swapping out the engine without ever letting the train slow down.”

That’s how Todd Wilson describes the past two years. In January 2015, his employer, Clif Bar & Company, announced plans to build a 300,000-square-foot bakery and packaging facility in Twin Falls, Idaho, to complement existing operations in Indianapolis. Months later, however, the company received surprising news: its copacker would be leaving the Indianapolis facility. In addition to building a totally new production space, Clif Bar had only twelve months to take over its existing plant or face devastating production shortages.

Today, the dust has settled after employees at Clif Bar banded together to accomplish the unthinkable. The company that once relied fully on third-party copackers now produces more than 70 percent of its own product and is poised for continued growth. All departments contributed to the astounding success. Wilson, Clif Bar’s IT leader, led a team that worked around the clock to get both facilities up and running without delay.

The IT team developed and executed a plan to install all systems for the new Twin Falls facility while simultaneously managing a full tech integration 1,700 miles away at the Indianapolis location. Both projects involved hundreds of employees, three languages, new systems, and complex networking infrastructures. IT expanded from a four-hour help desk to 24-7 service. The enterprise company tripled employee count to more than 1,200. And though 70 percent of ERP implementations fail, Clif Bar’s IT team completed two in just six months.

How did they do it? Wilson broke each project into bite-sized chunks, created six core teams (two internal and four external), and used the principles of “breakthrough change” that author David Pottruck outlined. “We communicated more than usual since we were doing two major projects at once,” Wilson says. “We wanted everyone to understand the why behind what we were doing, and we wanted everyone to understand how their role had a direct impact on the overall success.”

“People made sacrifices to get these projects done, and they did that for more than a paycheck. They did that for passion.”

That why is big at Clif Bar. In 1992, Gary Erickson started the energy bar company, which went organic in 2003, and converted it to an employee stock ownership structure in 2010. Employee benefits include an on-site gym, free personal training, and paid life coaching. Each year, employees donate hundreds of volunteer hours to community service projects and lead grassroots initiatives around the world. The Clif Bar Family Foundation issues grants and supports projects that address environmental and food security issues.

In fact, it was Clif Bar’s culture, spirit, and values that led Wilson to accept a position with the organization in 2013. Wilson had his options open. In 2006, he sold an early web-based business intelligence (BI) startup to a company later acquired by Microsoft. Wilson was consulting part-time and pursing a history degree from the University of California-Berkeley when he heard about an opening at Clif Bar—a company that had once used his BI software. Wilson jumped at the chance. “I loved the brand, and I had seen how dynamic of a workplace it is,” he says. “Clif Bar has people who believe in its mission and who want to work together to do something really special.”

That’s the message Wilson communicated to motivate his team. “We needed to get the very best performance out of our team for an extended period of time,” he says. “People made sacrifices to get these projects done, and they did that for more than a paycheck. They did that for passion.” The new facilities not only improved value for Clif Bar’s employee owners, but they also brought hundreds of new jobs and the associated tax revenues to two communities. The plant will further stimulate the economy by providing additional business opportunities as local grain producers look to supply the organic ingredients needed to produce Clif Bars and Clif Kid ZBars.

Wilson started implementation first at Clif Bar’s new Twin Falls facility. After breaking ground in April 2016, his teams had complex automation components, a new manufacturing ERP system, and an entire infrastructure running almost immediately. Many technologies must interact and operate flawlessly in the facility. Scanners and systems track ingredients from beginning to end as they arrive and move through receiving docks and various stations within the highly specialized, regulated, and automated building. An on-demand conveyor belt guides the bars until they reach a packaging room and go into robotic loading lines that use customizable BluePrint Automation solutions to fill various orders. The system can load different packaging configurations for more than twenty stock keeping units (SKUs). The facility started producing shippable Clif Bars by May of 2016.

That ramp-up from zero to full production helped the team perfect and tweak the approach they then applied to the Indianapolis facility, which was already producing forty million Clif Bars each month. There, the IT team migrated systems, converted an SAP operation to an ERP environment, and helped train and onboard 450 employees in English, Spanish, and Burmese. Clif Bar’s new Indianapolis bakery went live on November 8, 2016.

Although completing these tasks required considerable effort and some late-night sessions, the buildings are inspiring Wilson’s team. “It’s rewarding to see your contributions come to life,” he says. The Twin Falls bakery features vaulted skylights, ample windows, Solatubes, recycled barn wood, and an outdoor events space. Green elements include hybrid cooling towers, LED lighting, a reflective roof, and an efficient cooling system. The facility uses about a third less water and a fifth less energy than other similar spaces.

The site uses an innovative biophilic design that promotes well-being by uniting people with their environment through the use of indoor plants, sliding doors, hybrid indoor/outdoor spaces, and other purposeful elements. Instead of working in dark, sterile, and closed spaces, employees enjoy a natural setting and floor-to-ceiling glass in the break room. One workspace without exterior windows offers rotating, projected wildlife images. Just before the space opened, Wilson watched as a help desk team member and longtime Clif Bar & Company employee toured the space. “I think he teared up a bit because this never seemed possible when he joined the company, and he saw the impact we’re having together,” Wilson says. “He saw the beautiful facility that he had an important role in completing.”

Founder and co-owner Gary Erikson has famously refused many lucrative offers from iconic brands that would like to acquire Clif Bar. With two new facilities in operation, the company now produces a majority of its own products and controls its future. And, after a busy two years, Wilson is focused on restoring Clif Bar’s commitment to its people. In 2017, he’ll encourage employees to use their vacation time and other benefits and reemphasize the importance of a healthy work-life balance. At the same time, he’s dedicated to helping Clif Bar operate at high efficiency and get to a steady state with its two new facilities.

While tackling two massive projects at the same time is not for the faint of heart, Wilson says anything is possible. “We performed well because we had a clear vision, supportive executives, and talented employees who knew they were a part of something bigger,” he says. “We had passion.” And at Clif Bar & Company, that’s a recipe for success.