Lyell Clarke, CEO of Clarke, inherited a mosquito control and aquatic weed services manufacturing and distribution company and transformed it into a flourishing global public health products and services company. He shares his story and reveals the key insights that helped him to lead this dramatic transformation.
Meet Lyell Clarke
Lyell Clarke is the President and CEO of Clarke and all affiliated companies. Lyell has spent his entire career working in the Entomology field. He earned his Bachelors of Science in Entomology from the University of Kentucky, and went on to receive his PhD in Entomology from Iowa State University. He began his career with Clarke in 1986 as a Control Consultant. After gaining a solid grounding in the business, he became Vice-President for the company. In 1996, upon his father’s retirement, he stepped into the role of President/CEO. In 2008, Lyell led a re-visioning of the company based on a platform of sustainability. His personal passion for sustainability propelled Clarke to redefining itself as a company with greater purpose. Significant goals were set and achieved, enabling three sustainability reports to be produced to Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) criteria and review. His vision is creating a new perspective on the role and change that a small to medium size company can make in society.
The Clarke story begins three generations ago when John Clarke Sr. – the founder of Clarke – developed programs for the U.S. Public Health Service at military bases during World War I and wrote legislation establishing the framework for mosquito control districts in Illinois. John Clarke Jr. continued the family business while conducting research on the habits and biology of mosquitoes which led to the development of tools to combat them. His papers, published in leading scientific journals, were considered groundbreaking, and led to a model that pioneered the use of computers, which factored in temperature, rainfall and ground moisture to predict mosquito migration patterns and populations. J. Lyell Clarke III – “Lyell” – a groundbreaker like his father and grandfather before him – inherited the family business in 1996 and over the course of his tenure, has elevated the mission of the company beyond the extermination of mosquitos; today Clarke is a flourishing public health company. This is the story of that transformation.
Lyell Clarke speaking at the 2019 Conscious Capitalism Annual Conference
Listen to Your Gut
Lyell became CEO of Clarke around the same time that his family bought a number of conventional farms which, like most large farms at the time, used harsh chemicals and harsh fertilizers to mass produce crops. Lyell, an environmentalist at heart, was dissatisfied with that approach to farming. He tells us, “I put in all these conservation practices. Eventually we became certified as organic for grains. We began to put hedgerows back in and wind breaks, and all of a sudden this farm began to flourish. Live wildlife started coming out of everywhere and it became an oasis in this agricultural desert. I was spending my weekends there and really enjoying creating this wonderful oasis and then I’d return to the way we were doing business in the mosquito industry and I was frustrated and unhappy. I had the sense that we were just trying to make money; we were maximizing profits instead of optimizing profits. It seemed like we were this tired old service and distribution company doing the same things forever, not really concerned about the environment. It wasn’t fun. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it didn’t align with my personal value system.”
Lyell endured his discomfort for over a decade before he was able to name the issue and address it. He tells us, “In 2007 we held a strategic planning meeting and we had some new products coming that were going to be organic. We did some visioning around ‘what if we could provide an all organic service offering for mosquito control?’. I had invited my friend Greg Holderfield (at the time he was the Head of Design at Northwestern) to join the meeting that day and at one point he said, ‘Hey um… there’s this big green gorilla sitting over in the corner and you better figure it out.’ Soon after that meeting, I happened to take a trip to Bozeman, Montana with a friend of mine who is an architect. He was showing me these designs of this sustainable mental health facility that he built with wind power and native prairie, and all of a sudden something clicked. I came back and I wrote a memo. I gave the handwritten note to our Director of Marketing and I told him, ‘It’s much bigger than just this product or that product and I just started listing all the things; it’s buildings, it’s organic farming, it’s all the things.’ My team used to make fun of me all the time because I’d walk around making a big circle with my arms saying ‘It’s this, but I don’t know what this is!”
Copy of the original note from Lyell to their Director of Marketing
Lyell was making progress, but even with the handwritten memo; he was unable to define exactly with “this” was for the company. Finally, the answer came to Lyell in a book. He tells us, “It wasn’t until I read Sustainable Value: How the World’s Leading Companies are Doing Well by Doing Good by Chris Laszlo that I realized that there was a different way of doing business. There is a graph in the book where the lowest quadrant is about companies who are focusing on compliance and managing risk, and the highest quadrant is about companies who are developing a sustainable culture, becoming an employer of choice, and changing the rules of the game. We were at the bottom and I wanted us to be at the top.”
Take a Leap of Faith
It’s important to note that Clarke was not failing, in fact, they were doing well. Lyell tells us, “We had a large fleet of gas guzzling service trucks, manual and inefficient processes, and lots of paperwork, and we manufactured and sold pesticides, some of which pre-dated the EPA. But despite how it all looked – we were successful. Our numbers were strong. We were among the leaders in the marketplace.” Still, Lyell continued to feel uncomfortable. The synchronicity of recent experiences had revealed to Lyell that this wasn’t about updating old processes; this was about giving the entire organization a sense of Higher Purpose.
In 2008, Clarke’s annual off-site strategic planning meeting was approaching and Lyell knew this was the moment to bring his team in on his new vision. He was uneasy about how he would do it, but then he remembered a moment he shared with his son many years before. He tells us, “We were walking along the side of the pool when Joe let go of my hand and ran down to the deep end of the pool and jumped in. He’d never been in the deep end before. My heart sank as I raced to the edge of the pool to see if he would come back up. He did! Expecting terror on his face, he instead emerged from the water with a look of pure joy and said ‘Dad, that was amazing! What’s next?’ I knew then, as I recalled that event, that I had to ask the executive team first, and then the entire company to take a leap of faith with me and envision a new Clarke together.”
Lyell had taken the first step, he had asked his leadership team to take the leap of faith with him, and they were all in. From here, Lyell gleaned the following key insights that helped him to transform his company.
Build from what you have, where you are, and what you’re good at. Lyell and his team were able to better identify “where they are” using Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a strengths-based approach to organizational change. Through this process the entire company came together to identify what works within Clarke and leveraged those strengths to intensify energy and vision for their future. Lyell tells us, “We held an AI Summit. This is an event that brings together the whole system, all the stakeholders – employees, customers, partners, etc. – because, in this process, everybody matters.”
Lyell and his team used AI to discover their strengths (their proudest prouds), create a dream for their future, and design for that future that helped to move them closer to their destiny, or in Conscious Capitalism terms, move them closer to a Higher Purpose that promotes flourishing for all of their stakeholders.
Focus and enable your organization. Through the AI process, the Clarke team realized that what mattered most to the company was much more than just business. They identified five areas of focus that would help build a Higher Purpose that served their company and all of their stakeholders: Sustainable Business; Communication; Education & Awareness; Good Earth; Social Responsibility; and Health, Wellness, and Safety.
This was the beginning of the transformation that changed their industry all together. Lyell tells us, “Within a very short period of time, we had shifted from the upside-down, dead mosquito company… to a public health company with a purpose of making communities more livable, safe and comfortable.”
Today, Clarke’s Higher Purpose continues to transform. Lyell tells us, “We aspire to be an Agent of World Health Benefit through the way we practice business at home and around the world… We were the organization that helped Miami Dade stop the transmission of Zika Virus. Recently, when Eastern Equine Encephalitis was going throughout the East Coast; they called us in to help stop the transmission. We just secured a contract to provide our product to Brazil with the Ministry of Health to help them stop a Dengue outbreak, and in Puerto Rico we are helping to stop transmission of Dengue as well. In aquatics, we are monitoring water quality to help control the toxic algae blooms caused by nutrient imbalance. Through the Clarke Cares Foundation, we partner with the Carter Center to buy bed nets in Nigeria to stop the transmission (through mosquitoes) of Lymphatic Filariasis. And at home, we focus on our co-workers, our community, our environment.”
Encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. Lyell’s style of Conscious Leadership (built on trust and reliant on Clarke’s Vision and Values) enables him to entrust his team to dream big and achieve their destiny. Clarke has built a Conscious Culture by building a purpose-driven business that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work. Lyell tells us, “By enabling every co-worker to innovate and have a voice, the culture just shifted. Naturally. It came into alignment with what everyone of us wants: To feel fully engaged and balanced at work.”
Set big goals, then re-set them. The results of that Conscious Culture are clear in Clarke’s ability to consistently set and re-set really big goals. Lyell tells us, “I provide a vision of where we’re going, and I let our team own and lead the process of setting clear goals that produce results… We set some big goals about reducing our waste, and between 2010 and 2014 we reduced our waste stream by 64%. So we had to reset a new goal. We wanted to reduce our carbon by 25% and we did that by 2014, so we had to reset that goal. We wanted to get at least 10% of our energy from onsite renewables, and we are already at 12.3% due to a new operations facility we just opened that is designed to produce more energy than it uses… That’s flourishing.”