Part 1 of 3
When I played in the New Holland Band, I remember getting a call one day from a young man I had never met and he asked me, “Mr. Davis, how do I get in that Band?” Eighth grader Gene Clark was focused even at that age and knew what he wanted. I told him, “Gene, just show up with your instrument at the next rehearsal and we’ll see what happens from there.”
I’ve known Gene for nearly twenty years and watched him grow from that confident eighth grader to a successful high school and college career and become the president of one of the most successful businesses in Lancaster County. Full disclosure: We still play music together and continue to build on a lifelong friendship.
I recently sat down with him for an extended interview that begins this post.
Geoff: I’m here on the 11th of February with Gene Clark for an interview for (extra)Ordinary Leaders. Gene, thanks for doing this.
Gene: You bet.
Geoff: This is really a treat for me. And I’m thankful that you’re able to take from your schedule . So tell me a little bit about yourself.
Gene: My role in the family business is an interesting one. I think people look at our company and think we are in the distribution and food service equipment and supplies and that that’s what our business has been about forever but the reality is that it’s really a third-generation family business. It was an electrical contracting company originally that my grandfather founded.
So, in terms of me, I come from a heritage basically of mechanical people that work with their hands–electricians in the field. And my dad is an electrician by trade, you know, so he can fix anything, build anything. We built a fort in my backyard last summer. That’s the kind of stock that I come from.
So, I think where the company has gone is not really a mechanical business anymore. It’s a distribution business and it’s a much bigger business than it was before. So I feel I am this pivot piece between what was and what is and will be. Because I’m not an electrician by trade. I’m handy and I’m mechanical minded but I can’t build a fort from scratch without somebody taking the lead and knowing what they’re doing.
Gene: So that’s kinda my background and I consider myself that pivot person really.
Geoff: So how about a little bit about Gene Clark, the person.
Gene: I don’t know. I don’t think about that stuff too much. Life’s been good to me. I have three kids, I’m on my second marriage, I’m 34 years old. And if your life was in chapters, I don’t know what chapter this would be, but it’s a good one right now. I grew up, went to school, jumped right from college into the business, had a family early on, learned through a lot of that, doing it again right now. Doing better balancing all the personal stuff and the professional stuff and community stuff.
Geoff: So how did you get into this business of food services? How did you get into it?
Gene: Me personally, I can remember in middle school or early high school, having a conversation with my dad of what my future was going to be, once I got to that age. Up to that point I certainly had seen what my dad was up to the extent I understood it. I would go into work with him on Saturdays and play in the warehouse and that kind of thing. I’d be making forts out of boxes of stuff that we would sell and having a good time with it. And I would work in the summer and do sweeping up things and that kind of stuff.
But there was a point in late middle school or early high school where he was trying to get somewhat of a gauge of did I have any interest in going into the business. Because he was at a point where he was deciding was he preparing this thing for another generation or not. That’s basically where he was at. And that’s really the first time in my life that I thought, “Is this something I want in my life or not?” And after some consideration, it was “Yes, I would really like to do this”. And the way I looked at it was it’s an opportunity that very few people have. Wouldn’t I be foolish not to take advantage of what’s right in front of me?
Geoff: Yeah. How long have you been president?
Gene: I had to look that one up—since 2012. So when I graduated from college in ‘07, I jumped right into the business. Within a year I was a manager. In reality that role, which was in about 2008, just kind of morphed into what I’m doing today. I wouldn’t say–the title of President came in 2012–but I wouldn’t say it was a significant change of responsibility, at least in my mind at the time. So it’s kind of been one progression from 2008 up until now of figuring things out.
Geoff: So what kind of results have you generated in your presidency?
Gene: I’m a numbers person, so I looked this up. When I started, the areas that I was responsible for in 2008 did $30 million in sales. And in 2018 those areas did $110 million in sales. And that’s one part of the company when in 2008 the entire companies did $85 million in sales and last year did over $1.4 billion. So it’s incredible how much not only the areas I’ve been involved in have grown, but just the company as a whole.
Geoff: What do you attribute the growth to?
Gene: I think innovation, having an entrepreneurial mindset, and just the industry we’re in. The industry we are in is very not those things. It’s a very fragmented industry. It’s a very change-averse industry. But it’s a stable industry because it supplies the food service industry.
Geoff: And everybody has to eat.
Gene: Everybody has to eat, yeah. And more and more people are eating out. So those factors and the way we approach running our business have just made a perfect combination.
Geoff: What did you see differently that allowed you to innovate the way you did? Why, in a risk averse industry, how could you take the risk that you took?
Gene: For one, they weren’t huge risks. I don’t think our business was built on a series of bet-the-farm advancements. It was just many small risks. I don’t even know if I’d call them risks because they’re experiments. I’d rather use that word because that’s really what it was—it was many experiments. It might have been Jim Collins who talked about fail fast, fail cheap. Is that right?
Geoff: He called it fire bullets, then cannonballs.
Gene: I think that’s really what we’ve done, for sure.
Geoff: What have your greatest innovations been?
Gene: Specific to my areas, I would have to say a system we designed in house called PAS, it’s Project Administration System. One of the parts of the business that I’m involved in is Contract Management, where it’s new construction or renovation kitchens that we’re putting into construction projects. There’s a ton of coordination that goes along with that. And about, it might be almost 8 years ago at this point, we decided that the billing complexities of this were becoming more and more. And we were using three different platforms at the time to get the end result done—just for billing. We decided to build a code base to allow us to do that billing on our own system and therefore doing it once instead of three times on these three different platforms. And from there we evolved this into a complete soup-to-nuts project management platform. So it’s now the hub that everything that we do happens on.
Gene: It’s designed in-house. We have a team of software developers that work on it all the time, constantly rolling out features and different sets. So it’s been transformative in the way that we run the business, think about the business, and ultimately scale the business.
Geoff: Is it proprietary?
Gene: It is. It’s proprietary to us, and no, we don’t sell it. It’s just for us. And really if I think about what we’re doing today, it would be impossible to do it without that. The business just wouldn’t have scale. So I think that’s the number one thing that comes to mind.
Next post, we’ll see Gene’s biggest wins and greatest disappointments as a leader and how his leadership matters.
(c) Geoff Davis, 3/1/19