One Company’s Story: Getting From Sustainability to Flourishing

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Over the past few weeks, I’ve had some great opportunities to travel, meet new people and learn a lot. I went to Kenya and followed the folks at Vestergaard, makers of long-lasting insecticidal bed nets for malaria prevention as they rolled out a new campaign to address waterborne illness.

Then I went to Cleveland to attend the Flourish and Prosper Conference as Case Western. At the conference, I met Lyell Clarke, CEO of Clarke, an Illinois-based company that, like Vestergaard, also makes mosquito control products. Not one to pass up a coincidence, I followed up with Lyell for an interview, especially when I learned what an exemplary company he runs, particularly in the area of sustainability.

Lyell told me the story of the transformation that he and the company went through, more or less together, that resulted in a convergence between personal values, and a revised set of corporate aspirations that has made Clarke, not only more successful, but also a far more satisfying place to work.

They had licensed a new organic molecule from Dow Agrosciences for a larvacide that could potentially be safer than anything used in this application before. The problem was that the molecule was highly unstable and they needed to come up with a stable formulation. It took eight years of development, but they finally did. It was a great achievement that eventually led to the Natular™ product, which won the President’s Green Chemistry Award in 2010.

The breakthrough in the lab, led to a bigger breakthrough that redefined the company.

“We were doing well, had significant market share, but I wasn’t feeling satisfied. I began to ask myself, what are you handing over to the next generation? We’re a third generation service and distribution company going back to 1946. Is there something else I could hand over that this millennial, my son John Lyell Clarke the 4th, would want to be part of?”

Clarke engaged a strategy consultant who suggested he take his staff on a retreat.  This was back in 2008. They called in the whole company, around 160 people, even those working in other countries.

“I told my people at that first meeting, I do know where we’re going. But I know we need to go. And I asked them to take this leap of faith with me.  We realized it was time to reinvent ourselves. We asked the questions, who are we now and who do we really want to be? We characterized ourselves as a 2500 series Chevy pickup and Rambo. Who we want to be is a Prius and Kermit the Frog and a salmon that swims upstream and sacrifices himself for the next generation.”

It seemed that his team shared a sense of service right from the outset. Clarke took a deep dive into reading books, like Chris Laszlo’s book on Sustainable Value, and Ray Anderson’s work with Interface Carpet, and the Patagonia culture.

“I began to realize that there was a different way to do business and that this sustainable business model lined up with my value system better. That was how it all started. We’re this insecticide company, but environmentalists at heart, and that allowed the value systems to align. I began to realize that there was a pent-up desire within myself to create a company with greater purpose. I also realized that was also the desire of the people who worked for me. They didn’t want to work for a mosquito control company, they wanted to work for a public health company, that, as we now say in our mission statement, ‘helps communities around the world become more livable safe, and comfortable.’”

Clarke acknowledged that when they first started looking for a stable formulation for this organic molecule, they were approaching it from an industry perspective. Because it would be environmentally benign, it would likely be a good seller. But when they were able to successfully produce it, they began to look at the product and the whole company through the lens of personal values and greater purpose.

What happened then was he took the advice of Chuck Fowler of Fairmont Minerals. “Chuck told me to set some big goals and then get out of the way.”

They set sustainability goals for 2014 and have achieved just about all of them. “We reduced carbon footprint by 27%, our goal was 25%. We wanted 20% renewable energy, we got 44%. All our manufacturing facilities in Illinois are now zero-waste and the employees did it. I didn’t even know it was happening.”

Now they are setting new goals for 2020, as well as a new aspiration statement.

The company’s product line now includes OMRI listed larvicides that can be safely put in the water from anywhere between one and 180 days, depending  on the formulation, to control mosquitoes. They also produce reduced risk adulticides that are used to control adult mosquitoes in the event of a dangerous outbreak like the West Nile outbreak in Dallas 2012 where there were several fatalities. Clarke used aerial application to spray some 1.2 million acres over a two-week period. They now offer both larvicide and adulticide products in organic formulations that are considered “reduced risk” under their Earthright™ program.

So. what’s next for Clarke?

“Having attended the forum, we are now asking how do we get from a sustainable business to a flourishing enterprise. What does a flourishing enterprise look like for Clarke? Because I think it’s a little different for everyone.

How do enhanced workspaces and mindfulness help people to bring their deepest and best selves to work? We have a new facility with gardens and prairie grasses, a gym and a, kitchen. Why can’t we start feeding ourselves in this industrial landscape instead of just mowing grass. How do we get to a place where we are creating more energy than we use, being totally responsible for our products, both upstream and downstream? That all takes time.

I heard a statistic at the forum that said that for 88% of millennials—money is not the main driver. It’s what you stand for. It’s where your value systems are. It’s a sense of larger purpose that not only allows them to bring their deepest and best selves to work, but also lets them maintain a lifestyle that they like—doing it not only for themselves and company but also for the globe."