J Lyell Clarke: The Ray Anderson of Pest Control

Lyell Clarke speaking at Sustainable Brands 2012

When the CEO of a pest control company takes to the stage, you don’t really expect to be inspired – especially if you are sustainably minded. However, when J Lyell Clarke, President and CEO of Clarke, presented at Sustainable Brands 2012, people listened and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“Have you ever had a gut feeling that things weren’t right? My name is Lyell Clarke, I’m the President of Clarke. We’re 65 years old and I had that gut feeling 4 and a half years ago. I’m here to tell you my story.”

Clarke’s personal transformation and the process he went through are reminiscent of Ray Anderson’s famous inspirational decision to turn his carpet business into one of the most sustainable brands in the world.

At the time of Clarke’s about-face, Clarke (the company) was a successful pest control business with a focus on mosquito management. The company had a 50 percent market share and good recognition in the community, yet the brand was tired and had a complicated 18 slogans. Most worryingly, employees were uninspired. But still, with 50 percent market share, why take such a big risk?

Says Clarke, “When I would go to conferences and tell people who we were, they’d recognize our name from our mosquito spray trucks. The first thing they’d say is ‘Oh I used to ride my bike behind those trucks!’ Followed quickly by, ‘Am I going to be ok?’” That’s not really that great for the brand, or the community.

There was a pent up desire within myself and my employees. They didn’t want to work for a mosquito company, they wanted to work for a public health company that made communities better.”

So how did Clarke’s transformation happen?
It started with the normal aging process – he was turning 50 and was increasingly aware of the legacy he’d be leaving his children. Said Clarke, “Am I handing my son a tired service and distribution company or am I handing him something he can be proud of?”

He started reading books by Ray Anderson, Chris Laszlo and Yvon Chouinard. He started realizing that as health concerns related to pesticides came to light, organic and safer pest management solutions would increasingly be in demand. If Clarke invested in R&D in these areas, they’d be doing the right thing and gaining a competitive advantage at the same time.

When he became convinced that it was necessary to change course, it was time to bring employees on board.

“There were concerns. Legacy employees were slow to change and people worried that sustainability might just be a fad. In October of 2008 we were heading into recession – was it really a good time to make capital investments?”

Clarke realized he had to get leadership on board. Many individuals in management positions were not interested in making wholesale changes – until he got them to a retreat and people realized that they didn’t like what they saw. Something needed to change at the company.

So he called an all-employee meeting and brought Chris Laszlo in to speak. He and Laszlo challenged employees to look at the company through a sustainability lens and at the end of the day-long retreat, they’d amassed 875 new ideas for ways to make the company and its products more sustainable.

From that process they ended up with 5 overarching sustainability goals: reduce carbon, increase renewables, reduce waste, give back, and have 25 percent of revenue coming from next generation products.

These goals led the company to develop the world’s first all-natural larvicide. They also led to a renewed passion and commitment to employee engagement throughout the company. Says Clarke, “We’re saving $500,000 a year from the sustainability processes we’ve implemented. More importantly, we’ve become an employer of choice. For the first time ever, we have a waiting list of people who want summer jobs.”

Most excitingly, the company’s mission is truly transformed from a pest control company into that company that makes communities with a new slogan, “Making communities around the world more livable, safe and comfortable.”

Clarke takes it’s global mission seriously. Through the Clarke Cares foundation, Clarke buys and distributes (with the help of the Jimmy Carter Foundation), mosquito nets in Nigeria.

Readers: Who inspires you?

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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