UC Berkeley Web Feature
Brian and Jennifer Maxwell share successes with Cal athletics
This story is reprinted from the Fall 2002 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.
It's only appropriate that Brian Maxwell first made his name as a long distance runner. After all, the former Cal track star has covered a lot of distance since he left a Toronto suburb in 1971 and first arrived on the Berkeley campus.
"I had never been to California before I got off that plane," says Maxwell, who along with his wife and fellow Cal alum Jennifer, are co-founders of the Berkeley-based PowerBar Company. "I wanted to attend a West Coast college where there was sun. Cal was also one of the few schools in the country where you could compete and didn't have to cut your hair!"
Now, some 30 years later, Maxwell sports a more moderate hairstyle and a business portfolio that would be the envy of any Cal grad. Since he and Jennifer began selling PowerBar energy bars out of their kitchen in 1986, the company has grown to become one of America's great entrepreneurial success stories. In recent years, Maxwell has been named "Entrepreneur of the Year" by Inc. magazine and one of the "100 Superstars of Marketing" by Advertising Age. In March of 2000, the Maxwells sold PowerBar to Nestle SA for one of the largest multiples of sales ever paid for a food company.
During the past several years, the Maxwells have earned an enviable reputation in another area of their lives – philanthropic giving to the Cal athletic program. Among their generous donations have been gifts to the Haas Pavilion renovation project and the department's Academic Study Center.
Earlier this summer, Brian's and Jennifer's philanthropy expanded even further. Responding to a critical need, the Maxwells announced they would underwrite the cost of replacing the artificial turf on Kleeberger Field. The multi-purpose facility, which is utilized by intercollegiate athletics, club and intramural sports, and the Cal Band, will appropriately be renamed Maxwell Field when it re-opens this fall.
"As a student, I remember occasionally running on the field and playing some intramural games there," notes Maxwell. "I probably use it more now with our kids. They play football on it before the Cal games at Memorial Stadium."
For Maxwell, the sale of PowerBar has freed him up to spend more time with Jennifer and their five children – Alex (13), Justin (11), Christopher (8), Julia (6) and James (2). Now serving as chairman of Game Ready, Inc. in Berkeley and involved in two other small businesses, Maxwell usually returns home by 3 p.m. each day to coach his sons' Little League teams and check his kids' homework.
"They are all very active and into sports," says Brian. "Jennifer is a great mom. She's very focused on our children. She also stays in shape and definitely runs more than I do."
An architectural major at Cal, Maxwell never entered his chosen profession after his graduation.
"When I graduated, a recession was on," recalls the London native. "I still had aspirations to go to the Olympics. After college, I decided to come back to Berkeley and train for my first marathon."
That first marathon was the Canadian Championships in 1975, a race he won in Waterloo, Ontario. Maxwell, once rated the No. 3 marathoner in the world, consistently finished among the leaders at the Boston Marathon in the late '70s. He made the Canadian Olympic team in 1980, but missed the Games due to the Moscow boycott.
"That was a big disappointment, but I still had an opportunity to compete against athletes from 80 countries in the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, and had the experience to run in countries all over the world from Japan to Singapore, to the European circuit," he says.
Later, while serving as Cal's head cross country coach and assistant track coach, Maxwell met Jennifer in 1985.
"I had already started PowerBar and was doing research," he recalls. "Jennifer was competing in track at Cal and she filled out the survey."
She also scribbled a note at the bottom of the form, which said "Brian: I've been studying nutrition and I would like to know more about your project."
Perhaps not your standard pick-up line, but the rest, as they say, was history.
"I gave her my phone number," says Brian. "Eventually, we decided to go for a run together. We started dating, which was a bit strange. I was 30 years old and she was a student living in the Pi Phi sorority house. I guess things worked out."
Indeed. But now, nearly 20 years later, why do the Maxwells feel compelled to give back to their alma mater?
"We're both very value driven," Brian says. "Cal is a great public university. The idea you can be really well rounded as both a student and athlete is something we believe in. The two are not exclusive. In fact, they sometimes can even further each other. We're just happy to be in a position to help."
Maxwell also appreciates what the university has afforded his family.
"We love the experience of bringing our kids over to a game or just on campus. They have been exposed to the tradition of this place and have developed the notion that ‘college is really cool.' They walk by students and then we point out the chemistry building or the law school or the business school. You can't measure the value of that in their lives."
As chairman of Game Ready, Maxwell is now marketing an athletic medical device that could revolutionize the way trainers treat sports injuries. With technology that was first designed by NASA scientists, Game Ready's small oblong box may soon replace the age-old bag of ice that has been used in reducing the swelling caused by injuries.
Maxwell draws a direct correlation between being a coach and being a CEO.
"The greatest foundation for business management was being a coach," he claims. "The success we had at Cal was because we created a winning atmosphere. You need to make people excited about coming to work. As a coach, I taught our student-athletes how to cook, gave them advice about classes, even helped them find a place to live. We did the same thing at PowerBar."
It's that common experience as a coach that has also drawn Maxwell close to Cal's new athletic director.
"I'm very excited about Steve Gladstone being here," he says. "We were both coaching at the same time at Cal in the late '70s. In some ways, we were both outsiders in the athletic department. If you coach a smaller sport, you need to be an entrepreneur. You need to think outside the box to accomplish your goals. The great thing about Steve is he is a coach. He's assembling a team of coaches. From my experience, the coach is the key to a program. He creates an atmosphere where winning will happen. I see Steve creating that type of athletic program here."
For Brian and Jennifer Maxwell, their Cal education and long association with the university has led to successes beyond their wildest dreams. And how much have those successes changed their lives?"Not much, really," claims Brian. "I never dreamed we would live in a nice house like we do. But the things that are really important don't cost much. Being with my wife and kids or going for a run in the Marin hills. What do you need? Shoes, shorts and a t-shirt? Life is pretty good right now."
And thanks to the Maxwell family, many of life's little pleasures will be also be enjoyed by Cal students for many years to come.