It all started with an unhappy CEO.
Lyell Clarke III was “churning” in 2008; he knew that “something deep down in his gut wasn’t what it needed to be,” recalled Julie Reiter, who heads human resources at Clarke, a privately owned company providing global solutions for mosquito control and aquatic habitat management.
At an executive retreat Lyell shared his frustrations: The pace of change in the mosquito control industry was too slow; the industry’s reputation wasn’t great and people didn’t value what it did to protect public health. He felt a growing sense of responsibility as a maker of pesticides.
But instead of dealing with these issues privately, Clarke invited the entire company to join him in “this discovery of becoming a more sustainable, greener, responsible organization,” said Reiter. “It was Lyell’s mid-course correction,” where he admitted something was troubling him, where he wanted to figure it out and he wanted employees to help him do it, she recalled.
It was a radical move for a small, third-generation company where “people’s value was measured by whether they were at their desk” and nearly every decision had to be vetted by the company’s top executives, said Reiter.
THE GREAT UNKNOWN. With both uncertainty and commitment, the initiative kicked off later that fall. Employees met with consultants, who introduced sustainability concepts and sought workers’ input in crafting a path forward.
In an early vision exercise, employees were asked to find magazine pictures that represented the company. They chose images of Bruce Willis, Rambo, Ronald Reagan, Chevy Silverado pick-up trucks and black bears, signifying a sturdy, dependable, strong and macho organization. But when asked to find pictures that represented Clarke if it was the best version of itself, they chose images of birds, nature and a salmon swimming upstream, risking itself to protect future generations.
At this point, Lyell realized he wasn’t the only one struggling to reconcile himself with the business; “it was something a lot of us were struggling with but we didn’t know how to talk about it,” said Reiter.
Over the next year, employees explored reputation, society’s attitudes about the work they did and how they could affect change. They brought in speakers, attended classes on sustainability, set goals and “we started to try stuff,” said Reiter, who leads the company’s sustainability efforts.
A HUGE IMPACT. Those first goals mainly focused on things like reducing Clarke’s carbon footprint by changing up its fleet, minimizing its waste stream by improving recycling efforts and improving operations efficiencies by implementing technology.
The company made quick progress. “In the first few years alone, we probably cut about $300,000 worth of expenses from our operations just by doing it smarter,” said Reiter.
Clarke also began donating 1 percent of revenue from its growing line of certified-organic mosquito control products to environmental groups. And it introduced the EarthRight mosquito control service featuring organic products and the use of hybrid vehicles, all-electric sprayers and bicycles. Yes, bicycles.
Before 2011, crew members drove trucks to each neighborhood catch basin where they dropped in a larvacide pellet. It was “incredibly mind numbing” work and the “tediousness of it” made it difficult to attract and retain workers, recalled Reiter.
Now 80 percent of this work is done on bicycles, which has eliminated trucks from the fleet, reduced fuel costs and the firm’s carbon footprint, and increased operations efficiency. Plus, it presents a better image and “there’s a waiting list for this crew because who doesn’t want to ride around on a bike all summer?” asked Reiter.
Employees also embraced goals that had social impact, such as serving the community through volunteerism and improving employee health, wellness and knowledge of the industry.
HOW DO YOU SEE ME NOW? All of this gradually began to elevate “our internal sense of identity,” said Reiter. Employee retention increased to 94 percent and employees started to view themselves and their work in a different light. And because of this, so did people outside the company.
By 2015 there was a significant shift in Clarke’s ability to attract high-caliber talent. People were drawn to its mission, sense of purpose, culture and the opportunity to work in an innovative environment; “we were not that in 2008,” Reiter said.
The company also began attracting more innovative partnerships. “We have organizations coming to us now to talk about their new chemistries and molecules” where before Clarke had to beg to be recognized, said Reiter. Now, “they know what we’re capable of doing and they want to work with us,” she said.
A new headquarters in St. Charles, Ill., embodies the new Clarke. Employees developed the “campus of the future” concept and shared it at a company summit. It was a surprise to management; “we did not see this on our horizon,” recalled Reiter. But the next year the company found a building and the following year employees moved in.
The facility is a far cry from the stodgy office space of yore. It is flooded with natural sunlight, has more than 300 solar panels on the roof, an eight-station electric car charging bay with solar panels and a restored prairie. A second building was built from scratch. “Our buildings now are consistent with our culture and with our beliefs and our mission,” said Reiter. “Now when people come to visit us and interview, they walk into a building that is really different” and know “who we are,” she said.
The transformation at Clarke over the past 10 years has been “profound,” said Reiter, who likened it to moving from a palette of black and gray to one of brilliant color.
Sustainability has become “a whole way of being” from how you treat the environment to your people, the community, customers and partners. It’s not just about measuring improvement, but creating “an enterprise where people flourish,” she explained.
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.