Catching Up with Clark Associates' CEO Fred Clark

Clark Associates may operate three distinct distribution channels, but they are all influenced by the vision of CEO Fred Clark. FE&S sat down with Clark to learn more about what makes this dynamic company and its leader tick.

FE&S: Your company's roots trace back to an electrical contracting business your father helped start. How did he feel about you entering the foodservice business?

Fred Clark Rachel Weaver Steve LeamanFC: My father passed away last August. He never really understood what we did in the foodservice business but he was always proud of what we built. He never really got involved in the foodservice side of the business but I could have never gotten into this industry without his capital. He didn't hover over me or tell me what I could or could not do. And I try to do the same with our division presidents. Many of them work in different buildings and do their own thing. And I spend most of my time in procurement and the overall business services side of the company.

FE&S: You are a second-generation family business but first generation in foodservice. How does this benefit your company?

FC: I never had anyone telling me "that's not the way we do things." So being a first-generation foodservice business gives us the opportunity to paint our own landscape, do our own thing. We can look at the way everyone else does things and take a little bit from here and a little bit from there to create a hybrid and make it better. Second- or third-generation businesses so often get caught in following the way things have always been done. The words "this is the way things have always been done" are not words we allow people to use in our company.

FE&S: The fact is your company is growing so fast that the by the time you go back to do something, what you did before probably does not work, does it? At Clark Associates you really don't have the opportunity to get stuck in your ways.

FC: The industry is changing. The players within the industry are changing. Technology is changing. So you can't sit there and say this is how we do something. We always try to collect as much data as possible, analyze it and make the best decision possible at that time. If it does not work, we will back up, evaluate it and try again.

FE&S: You don't seem risk averse. In fact, many of your people say it is ok to make a mistake. Explain how trying things and sometimes failing makes your company better?

FC: Mistakes: you have to go out and make them. The problem is not making the mistake. The problem is not acknowledging the mistake. The real mistake is when you keep doing the same thing the same way even though you know it is wrong. Acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, reevaluate and move forward. I consider the cost of a mistake tuition because you are getting an education. We hire young people and they come with a certain skill set. What's unique about the foodservice industry is that there really is not a degree they can show up with and say they are ready to go in our industry. So what we do is try to encourage them to try stuff and make mistakes.

FE&S: Describe the attributes the ideal Clark associate will have.

FC: We hire for two things: intelligence and work ethic. If they have intelligence and work ethic we can teach them everything else and they can get up to speed in this industry real quick.

FE&S: You really place an emphasis on hiring young people. So many people in today's foodservice industry complain about not having enough young talent but you really do something about that. You motivate your associates to bring that younger perspective to the company. Why?

FC: Young people don't come with baggage or any preconceived notions about how a business should run. When you start with someone out of college you have a fresh plate. They are only learning that culture for the first time. Yes, we have a lot of people from a lot of different industries, but when you start fresh with people you have a better shot of keeping and maintaining that culture.

FE&S: There is an opportunity for everyone in this business. People always talk about the fact that if you are an accountant or an engineer there's plenty of opportunity for you in foodservice. And yet once they are brought into the business, everyone seems to celebrate the foodservice component more so than their other skills. You, though, go at a slightly different angle. Your company looks for people that are passionate about accounting or even purchasing.

FC: All of those talents we hire can be pulled from various industries and applied to foodservice. Whether it is a web developer or an accountant or someone in purchasing, all of those skills they can get in other industries. But our management and training helps make them specialists in foodservice. And we do spend a lot of time training and mentoring our associates. You constantly have to be trying things.

Cash and carry was a major change for us. The first couple years we got into that business, I was thinking what did we do? And then it started to come around and as we started to add stores we were able to spread the costs of advertising, for example, across all of the locations, and it really has become a successful entity.

FE&S: Your company has a unique culture. How does it make Clark Associates successful?

FC: As the company has gotten bigger, we fight to keep a corporate-type culture from getting into our organization. We still like to think of ourselves as a bunch of smaller companies strung together. Everyone has a job to do but nothing is beneath you. We treat everyone like adults. Everyone has their own responsibilities and there is a strong work ethic.

FE&S: How do you keep the individual business units with all of their different skill sets rowing in the same direction?

FC: Each one of those businesses requires specific skill sets and when you are hiring you try to address those specific skill sets. And finding people with those specific skill sets and matching them to the appropriate positions has made us successful. We have some great unit presidents and unit managers. They do great in their fields because they have a natural born skill set that allows them to be
successful in that industry.

FE&S: What is the experience you want the customer to have?

FC: It depends on which channel you are talking about. Different channels will provide different experiences for the customer. They might be someone that's price conscious or they might need some handholding or even higher level skills such as engineering. So focusing on the customer gets them to the right place where they need to be.

FE&S: The foodservice industry has been slow to embrace technology while your company has been quick to embrace it. How does this help you run your business better and service your customers better?

FC: Technology at its core is a cost savings part of the business. The more you can do with technology, the more you can lower your costs. Why the industry doesn't embrace technology and do more with it — I am not sure. I don't see how you can't do more with technology today. When I get to work with these young people that are so smart and so fast, it makes me work harder just to keep up with them because I won't let them pass me up.

FE&S: Your company is very data driven and the management team measures everything it does. Why is being that data-driven important?

FC: Sharing that data is something that's always made sense to me. The more our associates know, the more decisions they can make for themselves. So we share that data as much as possible. We are really empowering them.

FE&S: While your dealership differs greatly from others in the industry, the one tie that binds you all is the fact that Clark Associates, across all aspects of its business, is very relationship oriented. Why are relationships so important to your various businesses?

FC: We are still in the distribution business. It's about buying and selling. You have to take care of the customer because they are the one calling the shots. And that's really universal. So all we are trying to do is tailor each channel to serve each one of those customers. All customers are unique and the more we can tailor to their specific needs the more customers we will retain.

FE&S: The name of the company is the same but after that a lot has changed over the past 10 years. Did you ever think it would get to be this big?

FC: I wish I could say there was a master plan but there was not. A lot of things just fell into place. I am not a very creative person but I am a great copier. I have always looked at other industries and where they have gone. Look at the office supply industry, for example. Thirty years ago there was an office supply store on every corner. Today they have been replaced by a couple of cash-and-carry stores and some major e-commerce and specialty contractors. You can look at that industry and ask, why won't it happen in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry? So getting out in front of it has always made sense to me. If I am going to be in the race, I want to be out front.

FE&S: It's been hard for businesses to grow the past few years and yet your company has almost tripled in size. How does that happen?

FC: A wise man told me once, when everyone else is walking you should be running. I love recessions. Some of the best things that could happen to our company occurred in the past five years. We have hired some of the best and brightest people during the past five years and I would have never had that opportunity without the recession because every Fortune 500 company would have been after them and there was no way they would consider working for this little company in Lancaster, Pa. In general, the industry and the economy have been very cautious despite the fact there has been plenty of opportunity out there for change.

FE&S: What was the tipping point for your growth?

FC: It all has to do with our people. We have made some of the best hires over the past five years. And that has been the catalyst of our real growth. These people are ambitious, they are aggressive. They want to do well and they want to grow.

FE&S: In an industry that's resistant to change your company seems to embrace it. Why is that?

FC: It is a changing world and the customer is driving this. The customer is demanding a quicker way. There are now 25-year-olds purchasing equipment and supplies and those people have a different way of buying from distributors. So we have to change. The industry has to change.

Change is something that is very important to me and it is something we try to preach and teach within our company. That's because change is how you get to some place before the competition gets there.

FE&S: Clark Associates seems as invested in employee experience as it is the customer experience.

FC: If you take care of your employees they will take care of your customers. And if you take care of your vendors they will do right by you. It's just doing the right thing and being fair in all cases. We constantly try to work on that.

FE&S: To give back to the communities the company serves, the Clark Foundation was formed. Tell us a little about the philanthropic part of the business.

FC: This goes back to my father who taught me that if you are fortunate enough to have more than you need, there is always someone out there that needs more. So our foundation focuses a lot on Central Pennsylvania and on our facilities throughout the country. It's just a firm belief that we have done well and are doing well and there are lots of people out there that need help.

FE&S: Where do you want the company to go? What's the big picture?

FC: I don't really have a set plan as to where the company is going to go but I enjoy what I do. I get to work with some of the best and brightest minds in this industry. These are the future leaders of this industry and working with these young people is rewarding. It goes way beyond the money.

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