Gene Clark, President, Clark Food Service Equipment (Focused)
Part 3 of 3
Geoff: What’s the kind of culture you want to create?
Gene: I think, for one, it’s a place where people can feel like they’re doing really great work. We want people who are engaged in what they’re doing and happy with the company that they are working for. I feel like we are a very employee-supportive environment. Then we know good things are going to happen for the company. I also think that we’re looking for a culture that allows for change and questioning. Why have we done things a certain way and is there a better way to do it?
Geoff: If you took me inside your organization, what kinds of things would I see that would show me the kind of culture you are trying to build?
Gene: I think you would see friendliness and openness and welcoming-ness (if that’s a word). I think you could walk in anywhere and get a knee-jerk, instant gut reaction of the feel, you know, the tone. I think the tone you would receive is that positive welcoming, comfortable. I think if you have that as a base, then you can build some cool things on top of it, like great problem solving, great critical thinking. Some of the things you might see when you’re walking around are TV screens on the wall that have company performance metrics on it. It’s a very transparent environment that we’re sharing all this information. I think that that goes a long way in saying this is an open environment where we’re all just trying to do the best thing for the company’s interests.
Geoff: What kind of things do you do for your people that would be out of the normal?
Gene: For one, we’re not a commission-based company. Looking at how a lot of the companies in our industry do business, it’s primarily commission based. That’s something that we don’t do for our employees. And the reason we don’t do it is because we want that team-based culture where it’s not “my account” “me doing this” “I”. It’s more the “we,” “us” sort of mentality. I think a flexible workday is something that we’re good with. We have an open-dog policy, so if you come into the office, there will be dogs running around. Our offices have fitness centers that are open so employees are free to use that whenever they want during the day or night or weekend. A daycare for employees’ children at our Webstaurant campus. That’s at a very heavily subsidized rate, as well.
Geoff: Would you say. . . one of the industry standard measurements on employee engagement that Gallup has taken a look at over the last 20 years is that 70% of all employees are not engaged. Would you say that it’s different at Clark?
Gene: I would bet money that it is.
Geoff: Because of the culture and these things that you do for people?
Gene: Right. I think I’ve read, and I like it, that people are looking for three things they want: bigger vision, they want a brighter future, they want a better boss. If you can deliver on those 3 things, you’ve done it. So I think we have the bigger vision. I think people have a bright future because we show them opportunities for advancement and career growth. I like to think that our management is decent.
Geoff: More than decent?
Geoff: What do you believe about people and how is this reflected in your leadership?
Gene: People are different. All people are different. People have natural tendencies, whether it be very outgoing, very introverted, very skeptical, very trusting, very dominant, very passive, rule following, the opposite. So people have all these different things going on, and we are not all the same. That stuff really drives people. And if you can understand that and figure out how to make it fit within whatever you’re trying to accomplish, I think that’s when a lot of good things happen.
Geoff: What’s the one thing you see where leaders get it wrong? Where do leaders go wrong? What’s the big mistake that most leaders make?
Gene: A lot of stuff comes back to communication. Things being poorly communicated. It definitely happens. And probably just not following through on that vision, ideals, plans. You know, we put a lot of stuff out there. And then the second you don’t consistently follow through on it, it’s bad.
Geoff: How do you develop your personal competency and fluency? What are your learning strategies for you? How do you learn?
Gene: I read a lot of different books or articles. I feel I have pulled a lot from books and articles over the years. I often wonder if it wasn’t for that, if I would have missed the boat on some big decisions and things that I’ve done. So, for better or worse, I get a tremendous amount from that. I think the other part is just getting around. Meeting with customers, going into random meetings within the office, even just living and going on vacation—literally anything in life, I find I am getting inspiration and ideas from. We just replaced the second-floor heat pump at our house. And the way the contractor handled us, I thought was pretty neat. And I photographed some of the documentation they sent and sent it to one of our teams, not saying “Do this” but instead saying, “I thought this was really interesting and I’m sharing it with you.” And then I don’t bring it up again. But I feel that’s just always living your life and wondering–all these things you see, could I apply this to my business?
Geoff: That’s great. What would you say are the key skills and abilities leaders need to have?
Gene: I think communication is huge. The ability to do it, the acknowledgement that it is really, really important. Along with that, and maybe it should go first, is emotional intelligence. The ability to understand when you’re overwhelming someone, or you’re not giving them enough information, or just whatever. Emotional Intelligence is such a three-dimensional thing. If you don’t have that, it’s tough to be a leader. It doesn’t mean you have to be outgoing or whatever, to me Emotional Intelligence is the ability to read a situation and kind of understand what’s going on beneath the surface.
Geoff: I think Goleman describes it as self-awareness and awareness of others.
Gene: How can you be a leader without having a pretty good handle on that stuff?
Geoff: That’s right, yeah. What’s your view of community involvement? And what do you encourage?
Gene: Our business has hired a lot of people in the last couple of years. And I often think about how wonderful a place Lancaster is to live. I think–this would not be fun if we were trying to hire as many people as we are in a really terrible community. I think it’s a good reminder that we not only have a moral imperative to give back to our community, but there’s good business sense in it, too. We need a strong community so it’s a desirable place to live for our employees. So we do encourage people to get involved in a variety of ways: serve on a board; when they are involved in those organizations, the company will often support those organizations financially to show that we have the employee’s back.
Geoff: Do you have any specific organizations that you really go all out for?
Gene: We do an annual fund-raiser each year called Derby Days. We invite a lot of our vendors in, and we get our employees involved. We’ve raised a lot of money the last couple years. Water Street Rescue Mission is a big recipient; Schreiber Pediatric is as well; and then the Education Foundations of Manheim Township and Conestoga Valley, which is where our businesses are located physically in Lancaster County are the biggest benefactors of that.
Geoff: How do you deal with the stress of running a business?
Gene: Bourbon and cigars. (Laughter) There’s some truth to that. Exercise has been more important to me in the last five years or so than previous. I don’t really enjoy exercise; but I know when I haven’t done it, that it’s missing. I think that as much as I’m not a big exercise guy, I think it’s really, really huge to be an effective leader. Because if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’ll never be able to take care of your business. I think those are important. I have outlets, music being the number one, where it just totally gets me into a different place. I always like going to rehearsals where I don’t have to make a single decision. That’s the opposite of what the day’s like. When you make a million decisions during the day, it’s nice to go to rehearsal and be told what to do.
Geoff: If you weren’t in this business, what would be your ideal job?
Gene: I really don’t know. I have no idea what I would do because I like what I’m doing so much. And I like the people that I work with. I like the problems that we solve. And it’s not so much that I’m in love with food service equipment—I’m not, in all reality—I love the position that I have to grow and develop people, hire new people, grow different business models. All of that is so rewarding to me that I guess if I was doing something else, I’d just want to do that. And maybe swap out food service equipment for who knows what.
Geoff: Favorite book?
Gene: More recently, I would say Traction has been a real game-changer for me. It was a recommendation of you a year and a half ago—I read it last year and we’re now a full year into the usage of it—and that was the first time that I really figured out how to translate all the stuff in my brain into a well communicated plan that other people can pick up on. I feel like that was huge. I also really liked the book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Because that goes back to the Sears 1955, like what do we do next? And so I think about that a lot in terms of shaping those small experiments that are going to be the next chapter. And have used it in our National Accounts Group, for instance. It’s a new thing we have started. We took a small number of people and put them in a different office in their own little corner to just do their own thing, unencumbered by what is and what was. There in a new space. I think that’s been a great book.
Geoff: Any fiction books that are favorites?
Gene: It’s still not fiction I guess, but I like reading biographies. Last year I was into early American History and more recently I read enormous books on the industrial guys, Andrew Carnegie, and more recently John Rockefeller. Read 600+ pages about one person and you feel like you practically know them!
Gene: You know, I don’t really read that many fiction books. My library is pretty boring looking.
Geoff: How about favorite movie?
Gene: I don’t know. I love the classic movies. I think of ET as a great movie—great story, great sound track. It reminds . . . anybody who’s been a boy. . .there’s just such great stuff. It’s so nostalgic. I love that movie.
Geoff: Favorite music to play?
Gene: Definitely classical music. Being a trumpet player, I love to listen to it, love to play it. Playing an instrument, especially a brass instrument, is like hitting all of the senses. It’s physical, it’s mental, emotional. I just love that it brings all this stuff together.
Geoff: What’s one song that would be the sound track of your life?
Gene: I don’t know. That’s a tough one. Depends which chapter it is, I guess.
Geoff: The current chapter.
Gene: The current chapter? I don’t know. I listen to a lot of romantic era stuff. Rachmaninoff piano concertos—I love that stuff.
© Geoff Davis, 3/15/19