When you contact
Lisa Thomas in Berkeley, Calif., you know you'll be
speaking to a highly successful entrepreneur. But which Lisa
Thomas will come to the phone? The cofounder and
former CEO of Clif Bar Inc., who built a
multimillion-dollar business in little more than a decade?
The record producer, whose compilation Sacred Ground
just won a 2005 Grammy? How about Lisa Thomas of
Hi-Fli Records, whose first release, Spin This
by jazz vocalist Karen Blixt, is already chart-bound? Or
film producer Lisa Thomas, whose award-winning
documentary Homeland marked the start of a new
career making films that matter?
admits to it all, plus the joys and demands of her
22-year life partnership with Susan Swanson. Oh, and
she's learning a new business. With artisan
Allen Perkins, Thomas just founded Berkeley-based
Spiral Groove to make high-end turntables that she envisions
as "an audiophile's dream.
Allen's the designer, I'm the engineer,
it's his brainchild. I'm enjoying
lending my expertise to his process, and I'm
A passion for
learning goes a long way toward explaining Thomas's
off-the-charts success. Take the Clif Bar story. In 1986 the
New England native was a San Francisco Bay area
transplant who didn't know the business end of
an oven when cyclist Gary Erickson convinced her to start
a bakery. "I barely knew anything about
business," Thomas says. "I was learning
bookkeeping at that time, working at a foundry."
who's read a Clif Bar wrapper knows that Erickson had
just endured a 175-mile bike ride with nothing to eat
but Power Bars and nothing to contemplate besides how
much he disliked them. "It was all about good
taste," says Thomas. That--and hard work.
"Gary still had a day job; I spent hours every
week at his mother's house, learning the basics
of baking. She laughs and tells people she taught me how to
Erickson was the
face of Clif Bar; Thomas ran operations, developing her
skills and her vision. She describes those early years as
"business boot camp. It was still a teeny
little market.... Maybe the energy bar market was
doing $3 million that year. In 2000, when I left, it was
maybe $600 million."
In 1998, Ernst
& Young named Lisa Thomas Entrepreneur of the Year in
San Francisco. By 1999--the year food industry giants
Kraft and Nestle bought up Clif Bar's
competitors--Thomas figured it was time to let go. In
2002 she opted to leave the company, selling her shares for
a reported $62 million.
At that point,
Thomas felt she wanted to give back. "I wasn't
looking for another business to get into," she
says. "I do personally wrestle with the idea of
the capitalistic model. It can never really be equitable. I
wrestled with it as I became wealthy."
She says it
didn't take more than 20 minutes after she met out TV
producer Roberta Grossman to identify her next long-term
partner, this time in the film business.
Grossman's documentary project, a profile of
four Native American environmental activists to be called
Homeland, had little prospect of commercial funding.
But it had one big thing going for it: One of the
Native Americans Grossman wanted to profile was
believed in the project enough to fund it at a level where
it could transcend TV and be a feature
documentary," says Grossman. "She wanted it
to be beautiful." And by all accounts, it is.
Homeland is in distribution internationally and
has aired on 30 PBS stations nationwide. The companion
album, Sacred Ground, won a Grammy for Best Native
These days Thomas
helms the Katahdin Foundation, which grants seed money,
with Hollywood production offices managed by Grossman and a
slate of projects in development. And Thomas will
likely produce more music too. But she's clear
on what comes first. "My main focus is on promoting
my foundation," Thomas says. "If the
record label does great, that's fantastic; if
my real estate business does great, that's fantastic
too. Ditto the turntable business. It will add capital
to my foundation."