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Clif Bar: A ‘Different Kind’ of Manufacturer

Can a manufacturing company’s operating model be built around a set of core values?
In the case of Clif Bar, the family- and employee-owned energy food company founded in 1992, the answer is a resounding yes.
Just how Clif Bar did so, and how its value-based operating model has played out in how it makes its Z Bar, Luna Bar, and other energy food products, was the subject of an NAM Manufacturing Leadership Council plant tour at the company’s three-year old manufacturing plant in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Nearly 40 manufacturing executives gathered at Clif Bar’s shiny 300,000-square foot plant to hear how Clif Bar’s culture drives its sustainability efforts and to see how it makes nearly 1.5 million energy bars a day with a workforce of about 300 employees.
Clif Bar was actually not in the business of manufacturing per se until 2016. Until then, Clif Bar used contract manufacturers to produce its food products. But as the company grew and matured it came to realize that it needed to control its own destiny more, and it wanted to further lean into its values-based, 5 Aspirations business model.  This operating model permeates Clif Bar’s entire business from top to bottom, and can be summarized as follows:

  • Sustaining Our Business – building a resilient company and investing for the long term.
  • Sustaining Our Brands – creating brands with integrity, quality, and authenticity.
  • Sustaining Our People – creating an inclusive environment where employees can grow and succeed as they live the lives they want to live.
  • Sustaining Our Community – promoting healthy, sustainable communities, local and global.
  • Sustaining Our Planet – conserving and restoring natural resources, and growing a business that operates in harmony with the laws of nature.

And so Clif Bar decided to build its first manufacturing facility, a greenfield effort, in Twin Falls, and to let the 5 Aspirations guide its design and implementation. The facility was architected based on what Clif Bar officials call a “biophilic design” – bringing nature, in the form of natural light, natural materials and vegetation, to the occupants.

The Twin Falls plant has more than 200 large windows, many of which stretch from ceiling to floor, that provide large amounts of natural light. Walls were built using local stone, providing a rough-hewn but dramatic look to the interior of rooms and common areas. An aerobic biological treatment plant processes water on site. And two megawatts of solar power currently provide one-third of the plant’s electricity needs.
Clif Bar launched its sustainability program in 2001 and transitioned to organic ingredients in its products in 2003. In 2018, it achieved a milestone of purchasing one billion pounds of organic ingredients to date. Each year, Clif Bar donates one percent of revenues to communities in which it does business. So far, it has donated $49 million, and contributed over 15,000 hours of employees’ time each year.
The privately-held Clif Bar does not release specific financial data, but does say that it has achieved a 15% 10-year compounded annual growth rate.
Over the course of an eight-stop tour, MLC members saw the plant’s production, warehouse, syrup tank, kitting room, baking and cooling, packaging, and palletization operations. MLC members also saw the plant’s state-of-the-art fitness center.
Helping to manage the plant’s operations is what Clif Bar calls its Visual Bakery System, essentially an Internet-of-Things application that gathers and reports data from plant floor equipment. Using large display screens, the system was devised jointly by manufacturing and IT, and shows the status of work orders and other KPIs by line. The system interfaces with the company’s MES and J.D. Edwards enterprise resource planning system.
Energy bar ingredients move through various stages in the plant, including the syrup room, which houses five 275,000-gallon tanks. A Clif Bar official said the weight of syrup in one tank is equal to the weight of 20 elephants. And in the kitting room, unique ingredients, such as chocolate, are added into the process by hand.
Once energy bars are formed, the bars enter a long oven tunnel and  then pass through cooling tunnels. After going through the cooling process, the bars are wrapped using an automated system, inserted into cartons, and then placed in corrugated master cases. A robot-controlled palletizing operation places 486 boxes on each pallet. Shipping follows. The entire process, from forming the bars to palletization, takes one hour, Clif Bar officials said.
During a question-and-answer session, company officials emphasized that Clif Bar’s 5 Aspirations are supported by a set of what is called “Ingredients”. These are desired cultural behaviors and are headlined as create, connect, inspire, own it, and be yourself. Employee reviews are built around the Aspirations and the Ingredients and communication meetings always cover all five Aspirations, not just one or two.
But a key operational metric for the Twin Falls plant, officials said, is continuous improvement, a process that requires relationships, open communications, collaboration, and, above all, trust.
Looking ahead over the next three to five years, Clif Bar officials were asked what improvements they would like to see at the Twin Falls facility. Greater supply chain flexibility and agility, a stronger international footprint, a higher percentage of women in the bakery workforce, and better IT systems integration were cited by officials.

Photography by David Bohrer, director of photography, at the National Association of Manufacturers.

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