Foodservice Equipment Reports
E&S Industry Event & Award Coverage

Young Lions

Initiative, getting in the trenches, love of learning, problem solving... 

Recurring themes abound in our Young Lion profiles for 2019.  These six professionals—representing various channels of our industry—all learned from the ground up.  Many of them started learning their businesses while in high school and college, several are family legacies.  All, according to those we interviewed for these profiles, have spent a lot of time in the trenches, as chefs, servers and laborers, in the warehouse, kitchen and back office.  They love and even look for problems to solve and each has an absolute passion for this industry, especially in their desire to be of service.  We’re struck by the extent of their accomplishments at this early point in their professional lives and can’t begin to imagine what they’ll bring to our industry in the future.

The Young Lion Award was created in 1984 when the crew at Foodservice Equipment Reports magazine helmed the former FE&S at Cahners Publishing, later Reed Business Information. The award was created to recognize the “ones to watch” whose accomplishments even at this early stage in their careers signal major contributions and influence for years to come.

The choice of honorees follows an early call for nominees and a heavily vetted judging process to select final candidates.  During each awards cycle (biennial now, but becoming annual in 2020), the commercial and noncommercial Young Lion foodservice operators are nominated by carefully formed Selection Advisory Boards comprised of industry leaders and their support networks.  Young Lions in the Service Agent, Consultant, Dealer and Manufacturers’ Rep categories are selected by their association affiliates, the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association (CFESA), the Foodservice Consultants Society Int’l.  (FCSI), the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association (FEDA), and the Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry (MAFSI).  FER is very grateful for their partnership in this worthwhile recognition.

Join us when we honor and present our 2019 Young Lions their awards at FER’s Industry Excellence Awards Gala, May 19, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, Chicago (Sunday during the National Restaurant Association Show).  To obtain tickets, contact Christine Palmer at cpalmer@fermag.com.


Awards
Joseph Schumaker, FCSI, SCG FoodSpace
Maya Vincelli, University of Richmond
Mike Klosterman, Apex Commercial Kitchen Co.
Brian Gill, Five Guys Enterprises LLC
Dan Dibeler, K&D Factory Service
L. Gene Clark, Clark Food Service Equipment


Young Lion
Consultant

JOSEPH SCHUMAKER
FCSI, Principal
SCG FoodSpace
San Jose, Calif.


What’s more valuable than a talented jack-of-all-trades?  When that person has a vision, you’re dealing with a Renaissance man.  Case in point: Joseph Schumaker, FCSI, Principal, SCG FoodSpace, San Jose, Calif.

“I’ve known Joe a long time,” says Steve Cox, President, HPC Architecture, Santa Clara, Calif., “but what makes him unique is that he’ll take a subject he knows nothing about and approach it with curiosity, passion and the determination to ride it until he understands it.” 

On one joint project, a client had a facility with a complicated code issue related to the exits.  Schumaker had designed a foodservice facility in the space.  “We’d literally hit a wall, it was blocking our way,” Cox says, “and were struggling as architects to solve the problem.  I told Joe, but he insisted he wanted his plan laid out a certain way.  We met a few days later, and he’d delved into the local building code and found an obscure exception that helped us solve the problem.” 

Schumaker started out in retail after school, but eventually grew restless for a change and enrolled in culinary school.  As a chef, he worked in catering for a restaurant for a few years, then started his own catering company in 2006. Starting out in what had been a small bakery, he and his team initially focused on special events and weddings, but they found a new niche when SolarCity, a division of Tesla, approached him to start an employee dining program in a 900-sq.-ft. space.

With the advent of the tech boom, a number of entrepreneurial firms wanted to create corporate cafeterias without the expense or hassle of building and staffing kitchens, and Schumaker’s company fit the bill.  The company outgrew its facility and built a new 22,000-sq.-ft. commercial kitchen—the largest in the Santa Clara valley—in a building in Sunnyvale.

Schumaker noticed that a number of his corporate catering clients had facilities in serious need of updating, so he began consulting with them, designing new catered café spaces.  He ultimately sold the catering company in ’15. Compass Group purchased it earlier this year.

“I got started when a client wanted a tour of our kitchen, and realized they couldn’t replicate something like it in their facility,” Schumaker says.  “Even today, about 90% of the consulting we do is corporate foodservice design, most of which are catered cafeterias without on-site kitchens. I think we’re unique.  The big solution we’ve come up with is the illusion of fresh, cooked-on-site food, but it’s actually catered in.  We usually put in some finishing equipment like TurboChef ovens or Electrolux SpeeDelight high-speed cooking presses, equipment with hood exceptions that provide menu flexibility without a full kitchen.” 

The trick, he says, is learning how to cook different menu items to a certain degree of doneness so they can be transported, finished and served without any loss in quality.  And his success keeps garnering more attention.  He’s most proud of the first of these projects, OSIsoft LLC, San Leandro, which appeared in FCSI’s Project Showcase magazine in ’17.

Now Schumaker is going beyond consulting.  He’s started construction on a 20,000-sq.-ft. facility that will house a food testing lab, six test kitchens, a pilot co-packing plant, a food commissary, office space for his consulting company, and additional office space to house food-related start-up companies.  An area in back will provide parking and cleaning facilities for food trucks.

“We want to be an incubator and accelerator for food businesses,” he says.  “We won’t be fully operational until next spring, but we already have two CPG (consumer packaged goods) and three food tech clients.  The concept is to work with people who have an idea and coach them through the process of starting a business, from development of a business plan to menu development to real estate site selection.” 

He’s assembled a Who’s Who panel of food experts from a variety of industry segments to tap for advice as the new venture’s client base shifts and changes.  To stay ahead of the curve of what’s likely to be coming, he attends a lot of shows and conferences that other consultants don’t.

“What I’m learning about food systems makes it easier to talk about things like digesters, solar energy, smart kitchens and so forth in the consulting realm. It’s different seeing a piece of equipment at a show than it is seeing it in action in the field, and it makes our projects stronger.” 

“Joe always challenges the status quo,” says his partner Ted Pierce, Principal, SCG FoodSpace, “and he’s an early adopter of technology. He’s always trying to convince chefs to move from convection to combi ovens, from open flame to induction, from a regular panini grill to a high-speed press.  He works hard to learn the latest trends and figure out which are micro and which are macro.” 

But it’s not just creativity or work ethic that makes Schumaker so good at what he does.  Time spent with family is just as important. Schumaker is a Little League coach to his two sons, and loves to barbecue with family in the backyard.

“He really is a family man,” Pierce says, “and his balanced life shows he’s not just a sales guy; he’s the real deal.”


Young Lion
Noncommercial Operator


MAYA VINCELLI
Assistant Director, Retail Operations
University of Richmond
Richmond, Va.


If there’s one trait that embodies what drives Maya Vincelli, it’s curiosity.  Vincelli, the Assistant Director of Retail Operations at the University of Richmond, Richmond, Va., wants to know everything about the industry from what her customers want and feel to the latest food trends to future technology that will affect how she does her job.

“Maya is truly one of those rare individuals who is hungry for learning about any and all aspects of our industry— from the history behind a certain cuisine or the latest in equipment and design, there is no food-related experience, product, operation or informative article that does not pique her interest or curiosity,” says Dee Hardy, Associate V.P. of Campus Services at UR.  “She is always learning and moving us forward.” 

Vincelli took an early interest in food.  Her mother was a chef before working on the campus for more than 25 years, and when she wasn’t home, “‘Yan Can Cook,’ Julia Child, and ‘The Galloping Gourmet’ were my babysitters,” she says.  She attended a progressive alternative high school, and many of her classmates had afterschool jobs in cafés and restaurants.  Since many of them had cars and she didn’t, she followed them into the business.  Her triplet sister Lauren also went into foodservice as a vegan chef.

“I worked in all kinds of operations from bakery to seafood,” Vincelli says.  “I’ve roasted coffee and made ice cream.  There wasn’t a job I wouldn’t take, so I gained a lot of knowledge.  At 18, my mom suggested a job at a café here on campus.  Hoping to get healthcare insurance, I applied and got it.” 

Her supervisor saw her potential and gave her a lot of freedom to exercise her creativity.  That led to more work and increased responsibility along with training to support her growth.  She was soon tasked to open a new concept, and its success led her to open four more, an accomplishment of which she is most proud.  She’s now working on opening her sixth new concept on campus.

“You’d think they all would present the same challenges, but they’re all different,” she says.  “Each location is in an academic building— someone else’s space—so we have to communicate our needs to building managers to work them into the overall design and still be good neighbors.  We have to get input from everyone and make sure everyone gets what they want.  It’s sort of like being a politician in a small town.  With each project we have to build relationships because we don’t want to be a guest, we want to be a partner.” 

Like a good politician, Vincelli spends much of her day dealing with staff issues, making sure managers get the support they need, and helping operations that need it most.  She’ll work an additional cashier station during a rush or help wash dishes.

Her curiosity extends to herself and her own growth. “My biggest challenge is finding my own leadership style,” she says.  “That takes a lot of self-awareness and readiness to receive and accept feedback and criticism about your work and creativity from managers, employees and customers.” 

As part of her journey Vincelli has not only taken leadership training but also has attended enough college courses over the course of her career that she’ll graduate next May. “I’m excited about graduating, but I’m very proud that I’ve gained the respect of my managers and employees without that degree.” 

One of the things she enjoys about her job and the industry is their ever-changing nature.  “People have this idea that college foodservice is food dished onto a tray,” she says, “but today it’s about sourcing fresh and local foods.  We have built-in repeat customers who have grown up watching Food Network.  Fine dining and international flavors aren’t a mystery to them.  That creates pressure, but also a fun challenge for all of us.” 

Vincelli tries to take some of that pressure off her employees by showing them that they have her support and giving them the creative freedom she’s had since early on in her career. “Find a way to say, ‘Yes,’” she says.  “Give people permission to fail.  If someone wants to make fresh pasta, find a way to do it.  Don’t do things the same old way otherwise people won’t take risks.  It starts by listening to what they want and need.” 

She also has her eye on the future, and sees technology, particularly robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), as incredibly exciting.  “I see those things not as a replacement for staff but as a tool like a stand mixer or a combi oven,” she says.  “College education is becoming increasingly important, so how can we take menial tasks and give them to machines and free people up to think? We still need dishwashers, but there’s a machine out there called a dishwasher.  If bakers had to mix dough all day, how productive and creative would they be?” 

As curious as she is about how future technology will change the way people approach their jobs, she knows people are irreplaceable.  “At the end of the day, it’s about people serving people, about creating a warm and nurturing environment that supports our students, faculty and staff.”


Young Lion
Manufacturers’ Rep

MIKE KLOSTERMAN
Outside Sales
Apex Commercial Kitchen Co.
Kansas City, Mo.


Apex Commercial Kitchen Co., based in St. Louis, literally got its start around a kitchen table, according to Mike Klosterman, who handles sales out of the company’s Kansas City office.  “My dad, Mark, was in the industry for 25 or 30 years on the factory side, and had a dream of starting his own company with his sons.  The idea for a manufacturers’ rep firm grew organically out of conversations with my brothers and me at the kitchen table.” 

Mark started the company in August 2005, and in a testament to Mike’s desire to learn the business and work with his dad, Mark tapped him for an interview with a prospective manufacturer client in January ’06, before Mike had even graduated from college.

“I’d been thinking about getting a post-graduate degree in marketing and working in the advertising community,” Mike says, “but when we started talking about this idea, the challenges of how to meet the needs of both customers and clients along with starting a company from nothing really appealed to me.” 

“The manufacturer we interviewed with said it wouldn’t hire us with only one-and-a-half people,” Mark says. “Mike didn’t like that.” 

“Those first six months after I graduated in June were probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced,” Mike says.  “My age and inexperience appeared to be a problem for both manufacturers and customers.  I had to prove that youth is an integral part of the success of the industry and that I know the business.  That was a very motivating lesson for me.  I’m really competitive.  I want to win.” 

“Everyone likes winning,” says Kevin Eaton, President, Eaton Marketing & Assoc., Clearwater, Fla.  (and FER ’15 Young Lion Award winner), adding that Mike’s a former athlete.  “But he loves the process of getting an order, solving customer needs and making them happy.” 

But Mike isn’t a win-at-all-costs salesperson.  He truly understands the industry and what’s best for all parties involved in a project.  “Mike knows his products and the work required of the job, but he’s very relaxed and personable,” says Chris Bigelow, FCSI, CFSP, President, The Bigelow Companies, Inc., Kansas City.  “He understands customer relationships, and when there are problems he’s quick to return phone calls and resolve them without pointing fingers, so everyone feels like the solution is a win-win.” 

“When a manufacturer we interviewed wanted to hire us, but only if we had a presence in Kansas City, I said we had a guy there,” Mark recalls.  “Mike had no idea he’d be moving to Kansas City if the manufacturer hired us, but he was more than willing to do what it took.  He relocated from St. Louis a few weeks after we received word that we landed the line, and still represents the company today.” 

“Mike still roots for the wrong sports teams,” says Bigelow, “but he turned me on to WhistlePig Rye, one of the best whiskeys in the world, so he can’t be all that bad.” 

Mike’s background in marketing has helped him think outside the box when it comes to building the company’s business and brand. “We had an opportunity to grow because we had no industry habits or mainstream product lines to speak of at the start,” he says.  “We knew we had to figure out what the needs were and market our brands and create our own demand in the territory.  I knew that creating our own brand with marketing ideas unique to our industry would be integral to our success.”

Adam, one of Mike’s three brothers, would often send Mike templates to use for the website and marketing templates and materials while still in high school.  When Adam graduated from culinary school, he became integral to Mike’s strategy of using marketing to create additional value for the company, and developed their Internet “vlogs.” Joe, another brother, had already moved to Iowa to pioneer the territory there, but when a manufacturer asked if they could expand and duplicate what they were doing and work with them in the Minnesota market, both Joe and Adam relocated to Minneapolis.  Joe now runs the day-to-day sales aspects, and Adam is the full-time test kitchen chef where he produces “Chef Adam Live” videos. Andy, another brother, works as an inside salesperson in St. Louis.

“Apex is one of the first rep groups to take on video blogs,” says Eaton.  “They’ve not only done videos with product information and technical data, but they show how items are used and the products equipment can produce, whether it’s food or beverage.  They really push us, and others, to be better.” 

Mike pushed to get on the board of MAFSI after gaining some experience because he wanted to give back to the industry and offer his own knowledge as a way to improve the way others do business.

“Mike’s helped develop MAFSI’s new foodservice educational program, called ‘Foodservice 101,’” says Eaton, who’s also on the board.  “It’s a program for anyone in foodservice equipment channels. And Mike’s also stepped up to become a co-chair for the ’20 conference.” 

Mike is up most days at 4:30 a.m. to work out, and then help get his kids to school before heading out to start his workday. Motivating himself and others is natural and comes easily. “We’re having a blast, and it’s contagious, but there is no greater motivator than not letting the people closest to you down.  A company like this is a team sport and takes many people to succeed.  I’m blessed to work with family, which includes everyone at Apex.”


Young Lion
Commercial Operator

BRIAN GILL
Equipment & Supplies Specialist
Five Guys Enterprises LLC
Lorton, Va.


Brian Gill likes to solve problems.  That makes the equipment and supplies specialist a valuable member of the team at Five Guys Enterprises LLC, Lorton, Va., because he doesn’t just solve problems.  He goes looking for them.

“Brian’s out in the field a lot,” says Kris Gyori, National Accounts Manager, Cal-Mil Plastic Products, Oceanside, Calif.  “He doesn’t even live near his company’s headquarters in Virginia because he’s very hands-on.  He’s always trying to help operators find solutions to problems.” 

Fortunately, he’s really good at solving them.  “I have a propensity to want to take things apart and see how they work,” he says.  A degree in engineering and a background in restaurant construction and project management for more than 10 years (four of them with Five Guys), has taught Gill how to put things back together again, too, usually in better working condition than he found them.

“Brian’s unique in his approach,” says Mark Churchill, Product Specialist, Unified Brands, Conyers, Ga.  “I have 26 patents, but he has an interesting way of looking at things.  Once, during an ice storm, we went into a store located in a mall and learned the walk-in freezer was down. Brian knew what was wrong, and talked his way onto the mall roof to dig out the condenser and chip the ice off it. Sure enough, that fixed the problem.” 

When Gill moved from construction management to the supply side of Five Guys in 2011, he learned the differences between the two in a trial by fire.  The company had started franchising in earnest, opening 150 stores his first year in the job, 205 in his second year, and 250 his third.

“It took those three years to learn that side of the business,” he says.  “In construction, you want stuff on site on your schedule.  You don’t even think of lead times or material constraints.  On the supply side, we’re thinking 12 weeks, 20 weeks or even longer about how we’ll source and ship a piece of equipment to Hong Kong and meet local codes.” 

He’s also learned the value of patience. The company is deliberate in the changes it makes.  “Nobody here sat down and said, ‘Let’s start a great chain.’ A dad and mom who wanted to keep their sons around gave their boys a choice: ‘Go to college or start a business.’ They voted unanimously to start a burger joint,” he says. “ROI here is not as important as buying the best ingredients and providing the best service.” 

Being someone who looks for problems to solve, however, Gill knew that operators spent too much time and wasted too much water washing and removing the surface starch from fresh potatoes for the company’s fries.  “I always knew we could do better,” he says.

Gill saw a power-washing sink at a show and took the idea to the folks in the training department.  They turned it down.  With persistence, a year later he got approval for an in-store demonstration.  But the meeting fell through.  Gill and his staff packed up the equipment and brought it back to the warehouse to ship back to the manufacturer.

“Chad Murrell, one of the brothers and an owner/operator, happened to be wandering through the warehouse, saw it, and asked what it was,” Gill says.  “We told him, and he had us bring it to one of his stores and set it up.” 

Murrell was so impressed that the company OK’d a regional test, starting in California and Arizona where water is expensive.

“Test stores reduced their water bills by about 40%- 45%, and realized a 75% labor reduction for that task,” Gill says, “but for the company it wasn’t about saving money.  It was about making the product better.  Being family-owned is very motivating.  They remind us that we’re representing them, so we all share their strong belief that we can get things done and still treat people the way we’d like to be treated.” 

One of the reasons Gill likes to solve problems in addition to his penchant for tinkering is because he’s helping people.  And by helping them, he establishes relationships with them.  “It inspires me when I can start the day with a call from someone in Bahrain when something is broken and end the day with a call from a guy in California and help those people solve problems and succeed.  I take pride in that.” He’s also trying to impart what he knows to others, and is mentoring a counterpart in an international office.

“He’s learning it the way I did, from the ground up,” Gill says.  “The best managers are the ones who get in the trenches, know what every job entails and have empathy for those who do it.” 

Gill is excited about what he sees coming down the road.  “There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening with technology and data,” he says.  “Food safety technology will explode in the next five years.  Don’t fear technology. Figure out how to embrace it.  A computer server can’t walk into a kitchen and ask a chef what works and what doesn’t.  Your value is your knowledge of the industry, which no web-based algorithm has.”


Young Lion
Service Agent

DANIEL DIBELER
President
K&D Factory Service
Harrisburg, Pa.


Daniel Dibeler, President, K&D Factory Service, Harrisburg, Pa., is nothing if not direct.  He also has a head for numbers.  Those qualities and an economics degree naturally led him to the world of high finance with a Wall Street investment firm after school.  But when his uncle talked about retiring from the company that Dibeler’s great-uncle founded, he rethought his career path.  The decision to join the company is resulting in a paradigm shift not only in the family business but the service segment of the foodservice equipment industry as well.

Dibeler had worked for the company as a kid, so he knew the business.  But when he came on board in 2007 to help his uncle and mother run it, he brought his financial acumen with him.

With his outsider’s perspective and facility for numbers, Dibeler dove into his first big project.  “I took a look at the cost of labor for warranty work, and quickly found that we and the industry as a whole do warranty work at a loss,” he says.  “The extra work for warranty coverage increases our costs compared to normal service work.  Add to that the fact we do warranty work at extreme discounts to our street rates and it equals big losses.  Labor hours are my most valuable commodity as a service agent.  Something’s not adding up on warranty service business when my techs and the company can make more on a street service call.” 

Dibeler was the first to track these costs with real data, and he’s become an evangelist for raising labor rates for warranty work closer to market rates.  “We’ve all been around the block,” says Gary Potvin, President, Pine Tree Food Equipment, Gray, Maine.  “But Dan was very persuasive when it came to explaining what service calls really cost.  Dan articulates numbers so well.  He explains what we all know but can’t put into words.” 

“I’m a finance guy,” Dibeler says.  “My second big project came after I argued with a manufacturer about handling charges for warranty parts.  I ran the numbers on how that service charge affected us.  Manufacturers were requiring us to maintain a parts inventory.  That slow-moving inventory might cost us $2,000, and by paying a 10% charge to ship a replacement part, for example, I found it took 11 turns on average to recoup the money we spent to put a part in our inventory in the first place.  Essentially, we were financing a manufacturer’s parts inventory.”

Realizing he was onto something, Dibeler ran spreadsheets to share with members of CFESA, of which his great-uncle was a founding member in 1963.  His end goal is to see a more balanced partnership between service agents and manufacturers, particularly with regard to costs of honoring extended warranties and parts handling, which has changed with Internet commerce.

“I first met Dan when he was starting to establish himself,” says Potvin.  “He ran for the CFESA board but didn’t get on. He ran again and didn’t get on. He asked me why he couldn’t get on the board, and I said, ‘Dan, it’s because people think you’re a jerk.  Just because you’re right doesn’t mean you can shove things down people’s throats.  Dan’s a big guy.  He can appear intimidating, but he’s a real teddy bear.  He had to change the way he approached people.” Dibeler finally did get on the board.

“Dan’s very direct,” agrees Henry Lane, recently retired former G.M. of K&D, who’s known Dibeler since his childhood. “But he’s very customer-oriented.  He’s learned to explain why he says what he does; people respect him and his viewpoint.” 

“Dan’s trying to show manufacturers what’s happening in the industry and the real value of service agents to manufacturers,” he adds.  “He’s bringing an equal voice to the industry, especially concerning warranty work.” 

“I like to explain the ‘why’ of what we—and I—do,” Dibeler explains.  “It’s how I motivate people now.  If I explain why something should be done a certain way, people are a lot more accepting.  It’s the same with customer service.  If you explain why something broke and needs to be replaced, customers are more accepting of the cost associated with that replacement or repair.

“Today, skill trades like ours are a viable alternative to college,” he says.  “College isn’t suited to everyone, and I see a slow change as the college myth is getting broken and more people are coming into the trades,” adding that he sees a lot of potential for growth in all repair-oriented fields.

“Dan came up with a great compensation and incentive plan for our own service techs and managers,” Lane says, “which not only helped them grow but the company as well.” In fact under Dibeler’s guidance, the company has doubled in size to $12 million annually.  Dibeler credits the company’s employees for much of the growth.  “I manage manufacturer contracts and handle finance,” he says, “but I rely on a great team to handle the day-to-day operations.” 

An avid snowboarder and fisherman, Dibeler has instilled that passion in his kids; his 10-year-old son is a nationally ranked snowboarder.  “The way Dan is with his wife and kids speaks volumes about the man he really is behind the direct exterior,” says Potvin.  “You could not have made a better choice for this award.”


Young Lion
Dealer

L. GENE CLARK
President
Clark Food Service Equipment
Lancaster, Pa.


Gene Clark typically is the last person in a meeting to say anything, if he speaks at all.  When he does, it’s usually as valuable as anything else presented or discussed. Those who know him say the soft-spoken president of Clark Food Service Equipment, Lancaster, Pa., is remarkably good at cultivating young talent, so knowledgeable about the industry that he provides them excellent support, and such a good listener that he can quickly get to the heart of the matter in any situation.

“If you didn’t know him, he’s so quiet you’d wonder how his company is tearing up the industry right now,” says Penny Hutner, President, Advance Tabco, Edgewood, N.Y. Hutner has known Clark’s father, Fred Clark, current head of the equipment dealership’s parent company, Clark Associates, for 30 years.  (Clark Associates won FER’s Management Excellence Award in 2017.)  She’s gotten to know Gene at industry events and dinners.  “He seems to attract the right people and fosters them, and he lets others talk first then will fill in if necessary.” 

The dealership has experienced double-digit growth for the decade that Clark has been involved in the business. He’s been president for the past four years.  Handling that growth, he says, has been a matter of making sure that every step they take can be replicated on a larger scale or built upon in the future.

Five years ago, for example, the company developed new billing software, but saw an opportunity to use it to manage all contract projects from beginning to end, “so we planned for growth through its use and added new modules as we went.”

He also sees technology contributing to growth.  “We’re turning to technology in our personal lives, but equipment distribution is not that slick yet.  If a manufacturer has a price increase coming in six weeks, a simple flag on our website to that effect might prompt an order.

“Our biggest challenge as we grow is always about getting the right people in the right positions,” he says. “It’s never an exact science.  We look for work ethic and intelligence, and I try to lead by letting my passion show through.  It’s not an industry you normally associate with passion, but there is, even in napkins and silverware.” 

Clark grew up in the business as the grandson of one of the founders as well as Fred’s son. He worked there throughout middle and high school, but never felt pressured to go into the business after college. “But by the time I was ready to go to college, I knew that this is what I wanted to do after I graduated,” he says.  “My first job was CAD drafting and later project management. You learn the business by being in the trenches and solving problems as you go.” 

Clark leaves problem-solving to others, but never strays far in the event he’s needed.  “When we had a meeting with our buyers and his company’s account managers, Gene blocked out the whole day to spend with us,” says Daniel Huddleston, Supervisor, Restaurant Support at Chick-fil-A, College Park, Ga.  “You always feel his knowledge and experience, his presence when he’s in a room. You can tell he’s been through whatever subject he talks about.” 

While he wears a lot of hats during a typical day, Clark says he now spends a lot of it on the company’s new national accounts effort and in procurement.  “But most of my time is spent with our employees in mentorship and growing our management ranks.  I look to my father for inspiration in that regard.  He’s undoubtedly shaped my approach, but I try to lead in an authentic way, with my own style.” 

As a millennial himself, Clark understands that cultivating a new generation of managers requires a more hand-on approach than the previous generation used.  He also encourages young people who are considering working in the field or the industry to think about a company’s culture, not just what it does.  “A lot of them believe that all the companies in their field that do the same thing must be the same,” he says.

The culture that Clark continues to foster has a lot to do with family, the culture in which he grew up.  While that may seem old-fashioned to some in our increasingly high-tech world, a lot of people gravitate to it.

“We have a certain brand and level of service that is synonymous with Chick-fil-A,” says Huddleston.  “It’s based on a particular culture rooted in family. From the moment I started dealing with both the account managers and Gene himself, I found that his company is remarkably similar.” 

Clark Associates holds an annual Derby Day fundraiser that supports local charities.  “I attended last year,” says Brian Kelly, President, Continental Refrigerator, Bensalem, Pa., “and in a short speech about the event, Gene mentioned that it was his mom who got it off the ground.  To me that says a lot; it tells me he’s a good family man.  We’re all in business to do business, but when you’ve got family, that’s everything.” 

When he’s not growing the company, Clark says his three kids keep him very busy, and he enjoys playing trumpet, too.  “The industry’s been great to me.  I’m not sure you’d be interviewing me if it weren’t for my last name.  The average age in our company is 27, and as far as I’m concerned they’re all young lions who should be recognized. It’s their hard work that’s put us where we are.”

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