Raising The Bar - Integrity and Passion in Life and Business by Gary Erickson with Lois Lorentzen

A tasty tale with a difference
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The Independent Culture


The sub-text of most business books aimed at entrepreneurs is "How to achieve the Holy Grail of early retirement/ untold wealth by having a brilliant idea, working very hard for a few years and then selling out". Gary Erickson's is a bit different. Its starting point is his decision not to sell the energy bar company he created.

As he relates, this decision was not the result of a deep-seated belief in going his own way. In fact, he and his then business partner were well on the way to selling before Erickson experienced his epiphany. His reasons for going so far were, first, that it was "the norm" to build something up and then sell up. He had seen his rivals, Power Bar and Balance Bar, do just that - selling to Nestlé and Kraft for significant sums - and assumed he would follow. He writes: "The story went - and still goes - like this: You're an entrepreneur. Your company grows and begins to feel too big for you. You're tired, stressed out, and working really hard. You become convinced that you can't compete against larger companies. You also become convinced that you can sell and maintain the company's - and your own - integrity. An offer comes along. The money is appealing. You sell the company," he writes.

But he also acknowledges that fear had a part to play. Like many people who suddenly find themselves successful, he was worried that it might all blow up one day and he would have gone through the hard work and anguish for nothing. Of course, fear to some degree is essential; it is what stops you becoming complacent, whether you are a top athlete, a best-selling author or a successful business. But Erickson also found it was stifling him: "Fear kept me from performing at my best, and it paralysed others."

The final factor was where the "integrity" in the book's title comes in. Like many before them, Erickson and his partner had told the company's employees that, although they were selling the company, they would still be running it. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, despite what is said in the press announcements, this rarely happens - and Erickson realised he was deluding himself. Especially when as the negotiations went on, it became clear that their tenure under the new ownership would be very short-lived.

Most people in this situation, if they are worried about it, detach themselves and concentrate on how their bank account will soon look that much healthier - and what the effect of that will be on their families. But Erickson claims that what really told him - at the last minute - not to sell was his gut. In the past, he had relied on his intuition and so he decided that he should follow his gut instinct again.

Given that Erickson is an outdoor sports fanatic whose company was effectively created while he was riding his bike on a typically gruelling expedition, this change of heart could be just one of those follies where in true frontier fashion the little guy battles on against the odds, to little effect. But in fact, the company seems to have made a name for itself by being different. Yes, there are other energy bars out there, but the Clif Bar - named after Erickson's father - and the various other related products that have launched are associated with a company that stands for something. Erickson has been inspired by his background in cycling, climbing and other outdoor pursuits to commit the company to environmental and social sustainability - in other words, to make a difference.

This has, of course, required continuing to think differently. But that is an ability that is supposedly a stock-in-trade for entrepreneurs. And so far, Erickson and his colleagues seem to have been able to counter the big boys with their greater resources by being innovative. For example, when the record- breaking Tour de France rider Lance Armstrong - despite being a member of the cycling team sponsored by Clif Bar - opted to take sponsorship from a rival energy bar company unless Clif matched the offer, Erickson did not give in to the temptation to match it. Instead, he thought a way around it and came up with a sponsorship award for the riders who support the stars like Armstrong. Another boost for the little guy, you might say.

Some might find the book a little emotional and zealous for their tastes. After all, Clif Bar is based in Berkeley, California. But entrepreneurs who are set upon using business to make a difference, rather than just a fortune, will find much to inspire them.

As Erickson points out, taking the step he took required a "leap of faith". Not least because the immediate effect was that he had to buy out his business partner, and so produce the opposite effect on his back balance that had earlier been planned. But he and his wife hope they have created a place where at the end of the year "employees feel good about coming to work, passionate about the work they do, and have been able to lead balanced lives".

The fact that other companies are taking such an approach suggests that there might just be more to being an entrepreneur to building up a business and then selling it so that they can enjoy a few years of leisure after a similar period of hard graft.