Baking industry niche leads graduate to Clif Bar boardroom
Growing up in suburban St. Louis, Rich Berger’s career aspirations were far from singular.
At various times, he longed to be an architect, work as a patent lawyer or go to medical school to either study radiology or train as an anesthesiologist.
Thanks to his older sister Sharon (Berger) Finger, who earned a bachelor of science degree in petroleum engineering from Missouri S&T in 1985, and hosted him on occasional campus visits, Berger went from St. Louis to Rolla, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1990, with an emphasis in project management. While here, he also competed as a varsity swimmer on scholarship and was a member of Sigma Pi fraternity.
He’s since embarked on a nearly 30-year engineering career that began with a co-op at McDonnell Douglas while still an undergraduate and included stints in sectors as diverse as heavy industry, petrochemicals, pulp and paper, and food production.
He later joined Anheuser-Busch’s bakery division, which was spun off as EarthGrains Baking Co. before its purchase by Sara Lee, which in turn was purchased by Bimbo Bakeries USA. That niche led to Berger joining organic energy bar maker Clif Bar & Co. in 2014 as vice president of engineering for food supply.
While he now lives and works over 2,000 miles away from Rolla in northern California, Berger vividly recalls his undergraduate years as a pivotal time in his professional development.
“The mechanical engineering department was as broad as my interests were,” he says. “I chose S&T because I felt like people were excited and energized about what they were learning and were passionate about what they were doing beyond just getting a degree.
“The academic rigor of Missouri S&T’s programs focused on discovery through problem-solving,” he adds.
While at Sara Lee, Berger obtained a U.S. patent for a method and apparatus to make crustless loaves of sliced bread as part of a bid to introduce the domestic market to a product popular in certain parts of western Europe, notably Portugal and Spain.
He also obtained certification as a professional baker through an American Institute of Baking program at Kansas State University. Berger says those credentials have greatly helped, even as he ascended the ranks of management.
“I was able to understand the role of each ingredient, and the role of time, temperature and the science of baking,” he explains. “It gave me a better understanding of the baking world around me.”
At Clif Bar, Berger has overseen the private company’s move toward building and operating its own bakeries to augment its continued use of contract manufacturers.
The centerpiece of that effort is a new $90 million, 300,000-square-foot facility in Twin Falls, Idaho, that embraces the principles of biophilic design, which seeks to better blend the built environment with the natural world.
The Twin Falls bakery, which includes architectural touches such as vaulted skylights to provide natural lighting, is a design feature not unheard of in modern offices but hardly common in manufacturing sites.
Recycled wood and other green materials were used in construction. The commercial ovens are designed to capture surplus (and otherwise wasted) heat. Hybrid cooling towers help reduce water usage, and renewable energy credits purchased from an Idaho wind farm offset the electricity needed to power the bakery.
“We’re building bakeries in a different kind of way,” Berger says.
Though still a relative newcomer to the greater San Francisco area, Berger says he, his wife and their two children have embraced their new surroundings.
The amateur triathlete and former Miner swimmer has swam in a San Francisco Bay race from Alcatraz Island to the mainland. That’s no surprise for someone who works for a company known for encouraging its employees to ride their bikes to work, exercise while on the job and perform at least 20 hours of community service on company time. The company’s business model is focused on its “Five Aspirations,” or five bottom lines – sustaining not just the business and its brands but also its people, community and the planet.
“Everything you do matters,” Berger says, recounting not only his own life journey but also his advice to young engineers. “Well-directed curiosity eventually drives discovery – and that’s what makes an engineering career both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding.”
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