Roma McCaig joined Clif Bar & Company last May as the senior vice president of impact and communications. In this newly created position, she oversees sustainability strategy, community initiatives, corporate brand, and employee communications. McCaig said the role is a chance for her to live her values at work; the privately held company is on a mission to lift up people and the planet through sustainable practices. Its business model is guided by five aspirations that shape all decisions.
She recently joined Katherine Klein, vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, for an episode of the Dollars and Change podcast to talk about her work and the company. Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation. (Find more episodes here.)
Katherine Klein: I imagine many of our listeners know Clif Bar as that energy bar company. The company was founded 30 years ago. Gary Erickson had gone on a 175-mile bike ride and thought, “I need better energy bars than I have,” and set out to create them.
In 2001, the company is about 10 years old, and Quaker Oats makes a bid to buy it for $120 million. Gary is initially set to agree, and then has cold feet. His gut response is, “If I sell the company, we can’t pursue the purpose and the mission that I have built into this company and want to maintain.” He walks away from $120 million and has to buy out his partner, who had wanted to make the deal. This is a big commitment, and it’s been part of the company’s legacy in ways that, frankly, I didn’t really understand. Maybe that does speak to the communications role that you’re taking on, Roma. Tell us, why did you make the move to Clif Bar?
Roma McCaig: I spent 20 years in roles where I was driving change through the communications seat in health care, in tech, in CPG (consumer packaged goods). After sitting at a lot of leadership tables, being the communications support person, I said, “You know what? I really want to be the person driving the change, leading the change, not supporting the change.” So, I made a pivot to strategy and operations. That is what led me to Wharton to get my MBA.
I really fell into sustainability and social impact when I was at Campbell Soup Company. I had been leading procurement strategy and operations, and our chief procurement officer asked me to take on this thing called responsible sourcing. It was so fascinating because the commitments we’d made as a company around animal welfare and fair labor practices were things that were very important to me personally, things that I valued. But I didn’t realize along my career that this was actually [an area] where I could make a bigger difference.
When I saw this opportunity in procurement, I put on my strategy and ops hat and said, “How do we make sure we deliver on these commitments and make a difference?” It really meant integrating into operations – into our strategic plan, our financial investments, our annual operating plan, and our processes and systems — to get this work done. With that, I went on to architect Campbell’s first ESG (environmental, social, and governance) strategy where we aligned on 14 focus areas.
“It’s the first time in my career I actually get to bring my whole self to work.”
Then Clif found me. I knew the CIO at Clif at the time, and he reached out and said, “Hey. We have this new function, and I thought of you. And by the way, Sally Grimes is our CEO.” I knew that because I was a huge fan of Sally’s and had been following her career. I thought it would be amazing to work someday at Clif Bar and to work for Sally. And then I got this phone call.
I could take everything I’d ever done in my career, from communications to strategy development to operational efficiency and CSR, and bring it all into one job. That’s what Clif offered. And I got to align that with my personal values. I will say that today, at Clif, it’s the first time in my career I actually get to bring my whole self to work.
Klein: It reminds me of something that I sometimes say to my students, who are wondering how they’re going to use their values at work. Part of what I say is, “If you stay true to your values, you will find a way to live them at work.” It sounds like that’s been true for you. You had these values, and you’ve found a way to seize these opportunities and to make the best of them. I think that’s very powerful.
Tell us more about Sally Grimes. She stepped in during the summer of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. Not a great time to take over any organization. I’d love to hear what you have experienced, being part of a new leadership team.
McCaig: Sally is masterful at pulling together a team and identifying people who can work together, who can align easily. I think about half of our leadership team or more is new to Clif. Some are people that Sally knew from past lives, and some are not. I am not someone she knew from a past life.
She was able to bring together a group of leaders who quickly formed a high-performing team… Sally is extremely decisive. But she also leads with empathy, and she’s extremely kind. She just emits that in a room. And she hires people who are also that way. We’re all more than just about delivering the numbers. That’s where our five aspirations business model really comes into play. You have a leadership team that is aligned with leading a company for more than just a financial bottom line. It’s about creating a positive impact on society. Doing that creates this virtuous cycle of productive growth. She has found a whole team of people who all believe in that and have come from different organizations and bring unique experiences that make Clif so much more powerful.
Klein: Describe what these five aspirations are, and then let’s dig into what they mean beyond the rhetoric.
McCaig: Our five aspirations are a big reason why I’m at Clif Bar. It makes me feel good to come to work every day, knowing that we’re thinking about more than just a financial bottom line when we define success. I’ll start with our 2030 strategy, which we call our growth game plan. It sets a bold goal to double the size of the company by 2030. With that, we have also set a goal to double the positive impact on humanity. We know we can do this because of our five aspirations business model. It’s powerful because we manage our performance against five bottom lines: sustaining our business, sustaining our brands, sustaining our people, sustaining our planet, and sustaining our communities. We’ve actually written these into our articles of incorporation.
At its best, Clif’s five aspirations model produces this virtuous cycle where productive growth allows us to deliver positive impact, and positive impact allows us to continue delivering productive growth. If we fall short on any aspiration, we’re breaking that cycle for all of our aspirations.
Klein: Let’s get more specific. What indicators you’re looking at, and what are examples? Bottom lines sound like we ought to have numbers.
McCaig: I’ll start with planet. We have made a public commitment to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030, and we have plans for reducing our emissions within our own operations. We know we can do that. But we also can’t achieve this goal without our ingredient suppliers also doing the same. We’ve got momentum because we’ve been in climate action conversations with almost all of our key vendors for the past 10 years, with things like a program we call 50/50 by 2020, around renewable energy. In that program, we asked our vendors to use at least 50% renewable energy to process the ingredients that we buy from them.
To help them do this, we’ve made consulting services available to them at no charge, which they’ve taken advantage of. Some have even gotten to 100% renewable energy when it comes to the ingredients that they process for us.
Klein: I was also really interested to read about the extent to which you’re sourcing organic ingredients. You’re also funding research and faculty positions in organic food science at several universities.
“[We have] a bold goal to double the size of the company by 2030. With that, we have also set a goal to double the positive impact on humanity.”
McCaig: We are the largest supporter of organic research in the country. We’ve made endowments to several universities around organic research, the University of California system being one of those, where we’ve helped them create their Institute for Organic Research. This year, we’ve committed to making an endowment to an HBCU focused on agricultural research.
This is important to us because we’ve been organic for so many years. We think that organic agriculture is so much more beneficial to the planet in terms of the growing practices and the positive impacts both on climate and human health. We have, to date, procured over a billion pounds of organic ingredients, and it makes up over 80% of the ingredients that go into our products.
Klein: What about people? This is also one of your aspirations.
McCaig: There’s a lot I can say around people, because we can’t accomplish our other aspirations without Clif people who are motivated and thriving. This past year especially has been challenging for people in terms of continuing to work in pandemic conditions. It’s leading to new ways of working for many and responding to new challenges like supply chains constraints. Our people aspiration — especially our commitment to keep our people safe — has been our top priority. It can be decisions around travel, phasing return-to-office policies, how many lines to run at a bakery in the midst of large numbers of vacancies and absences, or just recognizing hard work.
One notable example that I’m super proud of is that at the end of 2021, we made the decision to close our bakeries between Christmas and New Year’s so that everyone could take much-needed time to recharge. Most companies in our same supply situation would not do that. Knowing we may sacrifice making some bars, we put our people first and gave them that much-deserved reward and rest so that they could come back to 2022 refreshed and ready to go.
Another example is around living wage. The bakeries that we own have been in operation since 2016, and since 2016, we’ve been paying a living wage. As market wages have increased in Idaho and Indianapolis, where our bakeries are, we continue to meet that commitment. We’re also now expanding our living wage approach to all Clif locations, even outside the U.S. Starting this year, we’ll be integrating pay equity into our compensation process, which will earn us what’s called “fair pay workplace certification.” This gives Clif the distinction of being a leader in ensuring equal pay for equal work throughout the company.
Klein: You have this role as senior vice president of impact and communications. Now, the cynic in me could look at your title and say, “Impact and communications? Is this just window dressing? It’s a marketing strategy. It’s just what they’re doing to impress customers, and don’t look too deeply.” Talk to us about your role — I presume you’re going to take down that cynical characterization.
McCaig: I’m not about window dressing. I need to make sure there actually is something under the covers there. The importance of putting impact and communications together is that it really elevates who we are and what is so important to us at Clif, both internally and externally.
Within impact, we focus on three major areas within our aspirations. We focus on environmental responsibility, social responsibility, and community impact through our employees, our programs, and our brands. We need to enlist everyone in the organization to be on that journey and to play a role. Communications plays a huge role internally to make sure that we are informing, we are engaging, we’re connecting our employees to all of these goals and commitments we’ve made, and that they know specifically what role they can play in delivering on those.
“The importance of putting impact and communications together is that it really elevates who we are and what is so important to us.”
Externally, we have prided ourselves on being very humble. But I would argue that that has been somewhat to our detriment. Our approach is not to be out there thumping our chest. Our approach is to take a show-not-tell approach and demonstrate what real action looks like, what real impact looks like, in an effort to influence others to do the same.
If I think about what our purpose is, which is to redesign the business of food for health, equity, and earth, we don’t want to be alone on this journey. We alone can’t redesign the business of food. We need our peers, our suppliers, our customers, our consumers, all to join us on that journey. The only way we’re going to be able to do that is if we’re out there, actively telling our story and sharing very specific examples of what we’re doing.
Klein: How does Clif Bar, a successful brand but still a relatively small, privately held company, play this role in influencing the entire food industry?
McCaig: One way is leading by example. You mentioned we were born on a bike 30 years ago. That’s how Gary envisioned this whole idea of having a better energy bar. It was purposely crafted, so a lot of who we are today came with us on day one. We have seen ourselves as this test kitchen that really aims to disrupt the food industry and prove that it can feed a collective good. To do that, we have to provide examples.
One is around buying plant-based, organic ingredients. We’re very vocal about that. We have produced videos about why organic almonds are better than conventional almonds. We have promoted the development of organic seed and organic farming. We advocate for things like the Farm Bill. We play a very active role in how we operate our business, but also where we show up. Policy and advocacy are a big piece of that, too. We have people in government affairs who play an active role in trying to push forward the importance of organic.
We also talk about how we think the food system can be restorative. We operate the world’s first zero-waste bakery. It’s something that we’re not hiding. We love to showcase our bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, because it’s remarkable. We have this phenomenal solar energy farm that has a pollinator habitat growing underneath it.
We are working on compostable packaging right now. We recognize that our packaging is not sustainably ideal, so our goal is to be able to move to industrially compostable packaging. We’ve been testing a lot of films. I did a backpack test, which was a ton of fun, where I took Clif Bar products in a bunch of different compostable wrappers for three weeks on my travels, in my backpack. I brought it back, and we had to see how the product and packaging held up.
This is the kind of thing where we don’t want to keep this knowledge to ourselves. We want to bring people along on our journey and share with them what we’re learning, so they, too, can also be making these changes.
“We have seen ourselves as this test kitchen that really aims to disrupt the food industry and prove that it can feed a collective good.”
Klein: You talked about the virtuous cycle of what you’re trying to achieve — doubling the size of the company, doubling the impact. On the one hand, we have a lot of rhetoric and stories that support that. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that impact and profit don’t go hand in hand. Achieving serious impact, at least in some industries, doesn’t always bring the profits that we would hope for. Describe how you see the virtuous cycle happening. Are there instances where it gets sticky? Where there is friction? Where doesn’t it work?
McCaig: The fact that we have five aspirations and use them for decision-making — there’s natural conflict built into that because you can’t check every aspiration box in every decision. Are we going to prioritize one over another? It’s going to be an aligned decision that we, as a leadership team, have made.
It’s one of those things that we use to hold ourselves accountable. But we also ask, “What’s the trade-off? What are we giving up to do this?” In some cases, organic being a great example of that, we’re selling a product that costs more to make. And we’re competing with products that aren’t using organic ingredients at the same price point. But that’s a choice we’ve made.
Klein: You’ve talked about the growth plans and a lot of the ways that Clif is living up to its five aspirations. I’m curious, what are we going to see for products? Are we going to see an expansion beyond energy bars? What’s going to get Clif to a doubling in size?
McCaig: We made an exciting announcement at the end of the year: We’re launching our first pet treat line. We’re leaning into our nutrition beliefs, our ingredient beliefs, by developing a plant-based jerky, which I’m so excited about. My dog loves it. That will be available later this year.
We tested cereal with one retail partner last year, and it will be broadly available this year. The other thing that you can also find out there right now is Clif Thins. This is essentially a Clif Bar that is a crispy wafer, and it’s a 100-calorie pack. It’s a quick snack to get that little boost that you’re looking for, and goes really well with a cup of tea or coffee.
There’s a lot more we’re doing with kids. Our Clif Kids, or our Zbar line, has been hugely popular. We’re really leaning into how we support moms and kids and the lunchbox, essentially.