Some people come into your life and are able to see not only what you are, but what you could be. Phil Clarke Sr. was one of those people for me. I miss him every day. This is the story about how Phil Clarke Sr. changed my life.
After working in both Truckload and Less-than-Truckload companies for 4 years, I got the opportunity to get involved in international logistics at 24. I had absolutely ZERO idea what the heck I was doing, but I knew it was an opportunity to learn and add to my resume. This was a company that was based out of Hong Kong and Los Angeles (actually South Gate, CA) that had opened an office in Bentonville. I had worked with the man running that office at a trucking company a few years prior. I was hired to make calls and knock on doors to introduce the logistics services this company offered. It took me MONTHS to really get my head around it all because the acronyms were so different.
I was finally catching on to our services and made the right connections at the various offices around the country. I started taking some chances with clients and they started paying off. They were trusting me, and I was having fun.
The Day I Met Phil Clarke
One day I was sitting at my desk, out in the open, and this older guy in a baby blue suit, cigar hanging out of his mouth, walked over to me and said in a gravelly voice, “What’re you doing?”
I told him I was scheduling appointments for the next week or so. He told me, “Come on, you’re going with me.”
I had no idea who this was at the time.
We got in his rental car, and he asked me if I had ever been to Walmart. I told him I shopped there frequently. He said, “No, the Home Office.” And he chuckled. I had only been there once before when I went with the head of our truck brokerage division.
The next thing I knew we pulled up to the Walmart Home Office. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I’m 25, and I still don’t know who this guy is, but I presume he works for us. I think maybe somewhere along the way he told me his name, but everything was a blur.
We get checked in at the front desk, where they knew his name, got our badges, and waited for someone to come get us. We get escorted back through the halls and this guy is talking to the lady who came to get us like they are long-lost friends. She delivers us to some open cubicles with two men sitting at desks. Their eyes light up and they are shaking hands and talking about how great it is to see each other. These men are calling him Phil, so I at least know that much now.
They look at me and ask who I am. I introduce myself to Pete Metzger and JR Campbell. Both of these men were leaders in the Walmart Import Department, which was called International Merchandising at the time. I listened as acutely as I could to see what they were talking about but was kind of just in awe of what I was seeing.
They talked for quite a while, and then Phil asks if Bill was in the office. They said he was traveling out in the stores. I later learned this was Bill Fields. Again, I had no idea who that was at the time.
As their meeting wrapped up, Phil started walking through the department talking to as many of the “Associates” as he could. I mean, as many as he could. He stopped and talked to a few ladies about “allocations” and how we could get them quicker. He introduced me to these ladies and told them I worked in the local office. Then we were all wrapped up and being escorted out of the building by a different lady who also talked to Phil like an old friend.
On the car ride back, he told me that he wanted me to go over there once a week and check on the folks who did the “allocation.” I asked him if he would let my boss know, and he laughed and said, “Yeah, we will take care of that.” When we got back to the office he walked in and told my boss I was going to start going to Walmart once a week to check on them.
After Phil left the office that day, I went to my boss and asked who that was. He laughed and said, “That’s one of the owners and the Chairman of the company.” Oh. Crap. He then told me that this was a BIG opportunity for me because Phil doesn’t let just anyone go to Walmart.
Oh, crap. No pressure at all now.
The Start of Something Great
Well, I started doing exactly what Phil told me to do and went to see the folks in the import department once a week. I got to know all of them quickly, and they started keeping me busy with things I could help them with. My once-a-week visits turned into once-a-day visits. This turned into a full-time job when I was promoted to Head of Walmart Accounts, at 26.
I reported to John Clarke who was one of two sons working in the business, but I had a direct line to Phil Clarke Sr. THE Chairman of the company. What was happening to me?
As I became more integrated with Walmart, I started playing a larger role within the teams that handled Walmart’s business. I started traveling to California anytime Walmart was going to visit, and many more times when they weren’t. I was a part of the team. I was spending a lot of time with Senior, as we called him. He was teaching me the business. I didn’t know any better, so I was asking all kinds of questions. And he ALWAYS took the time to answer them. He was brutally honest in all regards.
Because of the way I think, and the fact that I like to ask a lot of questions, I would ask Senior serious questions about the future. He was in his 70’s at the time, and still running the company. We talked about the future of the company and his desires. He once told me that he saw a future where I would be running the company with some of the other younger folks that were coming up in the business.
I didn’t cry then, but when I look back on that moment now, it literally causes me to choke up. This guy is a freaking legend in the industry, and he just told ME that he saw a future where I could be running this company.
Let’s fast forward to 1994. I was LOVING my job. I had a great relationship with the VP’s at the largest retailer on the planet. I was working for a legend. I had just been offered the chance to move to Hong Kong with DSL, but we had a young baby and weren’t ready for that kind of move. (Hindsight kills me with this one.)
One day, JR Campbell of Walmart casually said that I should come run his international transportation. For various reasons, including the fact they worked on Saturdays, I turned him down. But I told Senior about it. He told me it would be a great opportunity, and he would support it. I still turned it down and actually recommended someone else for the role.
A few months later, I was with Walmart in Miami and they offered me the job again. I talked to Senior about it and we talked at great length about it. He gave me some guidance, and a week later I accepted the position.
When I called Senior, I was so mixed with emotion. For some reason, this man had taken an interest in me and given me opportunities that I felt unworthy of having. He never once asked me about my education or lack thereof. He just simply taught me and pushed me.
Senior actually helped me write my resignation letter and then sent out the nicest note to the company about me leaving for Walmart. I’m still a wreck thinking about it. I was scared to death about this new job. but also comforted because I knew I had Senior on my side. I wasn’t losing him at all. In fact, I felt like we were going to be tighter than ever because I knew I needed his expertise.
When I had the chance to make my first trip to Asia with Walmart in early 1995, Senior made that trip too. They were still a service provider to Walmart, and we were meeting with them in Hong Kong anyway, but HE made the trip because he knew it was my first trip. This picture is of him and I sitting in the lobby of the Kowloon Shangri La hotel. I’m sure we are talking about ocean carriers and the rates that were going up. He was giving me advice, but he was also being my friend.
The End of an Era
In April of 1996, I was hosting a meeting in LA of all the shipping managers for our buying agent at the time, PREL. That week, Senior and I were supposed to sit on a panel together and talk about gate turn times and night gates for all the terminals in the ports. We had lunch the day before at our conference, and he told me that he’d been struggling with some vertigo. The next night, he couldn’t sit on the panel so Cobb Grantham, his partner, sat in with me. It was a great panel, but I missed Sr.
What I didn’t find out until later was that he had just received his cancer diagnosis. They just said he wasn’t feeling well. It was quite some time before they announced he would be stepping back from the company.
When I found out that Senior had cancer, I was crushed. But confident. Here was a guy who was tough as nails. I mean, this guy was a pilot in WWII. He survived that plus shipping containers up the river in Vietnam during the Vietnam war while working for Sealand. This wasn’t going to get Senior.
I got the chance to spend some evenings with him during my visits to the LA area. We had nice dinners and talked about life and work. I was always seeking his advice, and he was always there to listen and provide guidance where he could. The last time I saw him we had lunch at the Bicycle Club just up the 710 from their offices. He was not doing well, and I could tell.
In February of 2000, I got the call from his wife Susie. Senior had passed away and the funeral would be in Las Vegas. One of the former VPs at Walmart who knew him for a lot longer than I did was asked to read a eulogy. I was an honorary Pall Bearer. When I got to Vegas, I found out that the VP from Walmart couldn’t be there, and I was asked to read on his behalf. I couldn’t get the first word out before I broke down sobbing. It was one of the hardest things to get through.
Phil Clarke’s Legacy
For 20 years now, and throughout the various companies that I’ve worked for or have helped found, I think about him. I think about a 70 plus-year-old man who helped create the way our logistics business runs today, who took a chance on a young 25-year-old who basically knew nothing. And when I think about that, I think about all the young people I worked with at DSL and Walmart, and he seemed to have an eye for that. He believed in people. He believed in young people.
Phil Clarke Sr is a part of my professional DNA. I’m not the same as he was, but there is a part of me that is part Senior. And when I look at this picture I think of a man who founded his own company around 55 and worked his butt off until he physically couldn’t.
A few months after Senior passed, I received a package in the mail. It was from his wife, Susie. It was a box with a note. Inside the box were cuff links. He always wore shirts with French cuffs. The note from Susie told me that Senior loved me and believed in me and she wanted me to always remember him.
While many people might remember how hard Senior was on them, and believe me he could be, I will choose to remember how much he believed in me. How much he believed in a lot of people and put them in positions to find their potential. So, with a little bit of Phil Clarke Sr. in my professional DNA, I will always try to help people find their potential. And yes, I might be hard on them sometimes but that’s only because I see their capabilities.
It was truly an honor to work with this legend of the industry. And while I might not ever be a legend of the industry, I hope that one day a young person remembers me as fondly as I remember Phil Clark Sr.