Gene Clark, President, Clark Food Service Equipment (Focused)

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Part 2 of 3

This post continues an interview with Gene Clark, President of Clark Food Service Equipment held February 11, 2019.  

Geoff:  So what have your biggest “wins” been?

Gene:  I mentioned that we’re in the business of distribution and how the company’s grown so much.  I think the biggest wins have been from combining our core competencies and technology.  So like the thing with PAS and how we built that—the reason we could build that was because we have an e-commerce site called the Webstaurant Store.  We had a knowledge base of technology via the Webstaurant Store and we were able to re-utilize that for the benefits of the Contracts Division. Because when you think of general contractors, it’s not like a high tech—you don’t think of high tech when you think of general construction.  So I think the biggest wins have come from pulling ideas from one part of the company and seeing how we can apply them to another.  The technology is definitely one.

Another example would be good-better-best products.  Everything we sell in the market is based on the idea of there’s customers out there who want the good, better, or best.  We always say with cars Kia, Toyota, Mercedes Benz.  There’s a good-better-best to that and there’s a customer for each of those brands.  And so whatever we sell, literally anything we sell, from toilet paper to expensive ovens and things like that, we offer a good-better-best price point.  And then, because of our business models, the Webstaurant Store is more focused on the good and better customers where our contract divisions are focused on the better and best.  And because of all our platforms, it’s the buying synergies that you get that allow us to be very price competitive at any of those levels.

I think that has been a major win.  That combined with the technology are our two primary things that have generated the growth.

Geoff:  How about your biggest disappointment in the business?

Gene:  I can think of stuff that I’ve screwed up.  I wasn’t sure if you were going for that or –I could tell you stories.  But when I think about my biggest disappointment, I think it’s just been that as much as you have the best of intentions, sometimes the execution doesn’t go off how you want.  And I think there’s been a number of things where you have the best of intentions but failed on execution.  Maybe it wasn’t a complete failure but it’s just the kind of failure where you look back and say, “Gosh, we should have done better than that.”  And often times those failures are realized through disappointments with your customers. That’s when it seems the most disappointing, right?  Because it’s not a secret.  Your customer is disappointed.  And those are failures of execution.

Geoff:  How do you deal with those disappointments then?  What is it then that your strategy is to respond to those?

Gene:  I think for one, it’s keeping it in perspective.  I think we talk about that, with all the customers we have, they’re not all going to be happy is the reality.  So we try and focus on the customer satisfaction that is going to net us the most return, knowing that there’s just going to be some people that we cannot satisfy, no matter what.  And we have to take that as what it is.  But how do we figure out the needs of the majority of our customers and really work for that group.  And really exceed their expectations.

Geoff:  So let’s switch a little bit and talk about your leadership.  Why did you decide to be a leader in this company and not a technical person or a finance person?  Why a leader?

Gene:  I don’t know if I ever really decided that is the reality of it.  My last name’s Clark; Clark is the name of the business.  I don’t know if there was anything else to think about there.  I think the reality is, if I was a terrible leader, I probably would have known by now.  And so in some ways . . .

Geoff:  The results would have shown it too, right?

Gene:  Sure.  I don’t know if it’s just luck or whatever, but in my situation, which is certainly a unique one, that was the only path.

Geoff:  Yeah, yeah.  So what is it you do that makes you a leader?

Gene:  I think the biggest thing is to have a vision and then to be able to effectively communicate that vision to whoever you’re working with.  And especially in our industry, where we talked about that it is not a huge innovative industry with change that’s fully embraced and all this stuff, it’s a pretty fragmented, stuck-in-its-way business industry.  So to have a compelling vision that’s looking for forward-looking change is pretty exciting. And so I love sharing that with our people.  I think that’s number one.  Otherwise, if there’s no compelling vision, then what’s the point of sharing that?

Geoff:  Do you have a pretty exciting, compelling vision now that you’ve articulated?

Gene:  Yeah, and again, with our company having multiple divisions, for the areas that I spend most of my time in, we talk about redefining the expectations of the industry.  And the reason we say that is because our customer base is the kind of customer that has a sophisticated operation, i.e. institutions like hospitals or colleges, prisons, it can be big entertainment venues like Disney World and Universal Studios and things like that.  So our customer base is very complex operations.  And because of that they are primarily serviced by the most traditional players of our industry.

Where some of the untraditional stuff going on in our industry is like Amazon coming in.  Those complex customers aren’t going to do our type of business with an Amazon just because of the nature of what they need.  They need project management and design work and installation and a lot of technical support.  So what we find is that the expectations of our customer base, these sophisticated customers, is pretty low.  They’re expecting business to be done how it’s been done for decades, never really questioning why it can’t be better.  They’ll come to work and wait for our competition to get them a quote for three days when they’ll go home and buy who knows what on Amazon and it’s shipped to them before their competitor gets them a quote.  So there seems to be a disconnect between the expectations in their personal life from the expectations of their business life.

And so we look at that and say there’s no reason that the expectations should be that different.  So how can we show the customer that your business life, in terms of what you can do with our company, can be just as wonderful as these other parts of your life that you experience.

Geoff:  So who influenced you in your leadership development?

Gene:  Certainly, my dad.  He is my boss and somebody I’ve watched my entire life, obviously.  So I look at the way he’s grown the company and I’ve certainly seen his style and his effectiveness in what he does.  I think really, I try and pick the best parts of what I see there, and also learn from the mistakes I’ve seen him make—you know, mistakes that everybody makes.  And so I think that combination of watching how he’s done things through his entire career and picking out the parts that I think match my style.  I would say he’s my Mentor Number One for sure.

Geoff:  Name one thing that you’ve seen him do that really worked.

Gene:  I think it’s thinking differently.  We talk about how a lot of our competition are also family businesses.  But a lot of those businesses are many multi-generation businesses.  They’ve been around for literally over 100 years, from fourth, fifth generation businesses.  And one of the things my dad has always said is he never had anybody generationally behind him older than him saying, “That’s not the way we do things in this industry.”  He always had that freedom of never being held back by some other generation saying “We don’t do it that way.”  I think that’s been very freeing.  I think that in the way he’s worked with me, he knows what is so important to allow for the positive change to happen is to not be stuck in “Well, this is how we’ve always done things.”

Geoff:  What would you say is one of the things that you watched that didn’t work so well?

Gene:  I think just getting the right people in the right places.  We joke that he has an intensity–a true entrepreneur visionary way about him–that is just too strong for many people.  And so he has a group of presidents, myself being one of them, that run the businesses and ultimately are working with a lot of the staff, where there’s a lot fewer people who are working directly with him.  I liken it to we are the sunglasses to the sun.  Most people can’t handle the intensity of the sun and so I think it’s those people who work closely with him, those presidents, that filter down his vision and entrepreneurial spirit into a dosage that is appropriate for the mass public.

Geoff:  How do you lead?  How would you describe your leadership?  What is it you do to lead?

Gene:  For one, it’s evolving.  More lately, in the last couple years, I’ve realized it’s not just about making all the decisions, calling the shots and all that kind of thing, and making sure everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I’ve realized in the last couple years that it’s much more about crafting that vision and getting people to understand and buy into the vision.  Buying in is one thing, but actually understanding it is another.  I think I’ve spent more time on educating on why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them – why we think it’s important to redefine the expectations of the industry, for example.

Geoff:  So what would you say are some of the greatest challenges you face as a leader?

Gene:  I think our biggest challenge, or the thing I think about, is complacency.  We’ve had a lot of success.  I think a lot about Sears actually, for some reason.  I think this has just been in books.  Are we, right now, Sears 1955, or whatever, where they’re on top of the world?  That’s kind of how we feel as a company right now.  What if we were Sears 1955 and we all know how that story ends or should end.  I think that is the biggest fear.  Because we had the vision, or we have the vision, we have great people, we’re doing the numbers, it’s all good.  How do we not get complacent?  That’s challenging and scary.

Geoff:  The biggest threat to most organizations is when they’re successful.  You saw it with Acme . . . you saw it with the Pennsylvania Railroad, you see it with a number of industries over history.

Gene:  Yeah.  We’ve had this incredible . . . We’re in our 48th year, I believe.  But particularly the last 10 or 15 years have been this crazy acceleration.  How do we keep this going and not get too safe.

Geoff:  What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about leading?

Gene:  I think for me, less is more.  Sometimes I get too many things going on in my mind all at once, and then you start to get the message blurred and confused.  So for me it’s more just take your time to really think things through.  Then be very specific as to what and why you’re doing things.  And really focus on less is more.

Geoff:  What’s one thing you wish you knew how to do that would make you a better leader?

Gene:  I think for me, networking is something that I could do better at.  As our business grows, it’s a relatively small world in the industry we’re in, so the ability to network and really maintain those contacts and grow new ones, grow contacts and kind of peripheral opportunities, I think is going to be important going back to our company being Sears 1955.  It’s that networking that’s going to lead to continued innovation.

Geoff:  Do you have a Board or Directors or Advisory Board that helps you out?

Gene:  We don’t.  That’s something that I’ve talked about.

In Part 3, we’ll look at Gene’s take on culture, how they make treating people a competitive advantage and source of employee engagement, how he continues to learn, the approach to community involvement, how he deals with stress, and a little more about Gene, the person.

© Geoff Davis, 3/8/19

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