Julie Reiter, Clarke
Julie Reiter knew that Clarke’s 2008 leadership retreat would be a little different when president and CEO Lyell Clarke asked his team to bring their bathing suits. At the time, Clarke was a 62-year-old third-generation family-owned business, based in St. Charles, Ill., that was a traditional distributor of mosquito control products and provider of mosquito control services to municipalities across the U.S.

At the retreat, Lyell Clarke recounted a story about a trip to the pool with his young son, not a skilled swimmer, who broke free of his father’s hand and plunged right into the deep end. But rather than emerging sputtering and scared, Clarke’s son came up beaming, saying “Dad, what’s next?” Clarke used the story to illustrate his own feelings of uncertainty about the environmental impact of the company’s products, and challenged his team to ask of themselves, “What’s next?” As a symbol of their joint commitment to do things differently — even though the path was uncertain — the leadership team got out their bathing suits and took a literal leap of faith into the hotel’s swimming pool. 

That started a journey that has led to Clarke’s transformation into a global public health company that focuses on mosquito control, using innovative products and techniques plus internal process improvement to minimize environmental impact. Beyond spoke with Reiter recently while attending the Fourth Global Forum, hosted by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (of which Clarke is a member of the Advisory Board), to hear about how that journey has unfolded. 

Q: How did the rest of Clarke’s management team react to that pivot in 2008? 

A: It was a powerful moment. It was a moment of realization that what Lyell had been struggling with, what I had been struggling with, what a lot of us had been struggling with — we didn’t know how to talk about it. We didn’t know how to do it, we didn’t know what “it” was. Up until 2009 or 2010, our logo had an upside-down dead mosquito. We were the upside-down dead mosquito company. Giving up that upside-down dead mosquito was one of the hardest things we did, and one of the most important things we did, because we transitioned our thought processes away from killing mosquitos to preserving life, to making communities more livable, safe, and comfortable.

Q: What was the reaction outside of Clarke’s management team to this kind of change? 

A: What we came to understand was that the market didn’t want us to change. We couldn’t just come at it directly and have this great reveal, because the market wasn’t ready for that. What we agreed to do was work on ourselves inside, and then figure out how to bring others into the conversation. In fact, when we wrote our first sustainability report in 2010, we didn’t publish it publicly. We just distributed it internally, because we wanted to start the conversation.

Q: What’s an example of something nuts-and-bolts that changed? 

A: One of the first things was that we introduced a new product called Natular, a larvicide product to control mosquitos in bodies of water, which is

Clarke helicopter
one of the most important things you can do in mosquito control. It’s a product that’s derived from natural ingredients so we were able to bring mosquito control to areas that couldn’t do mosquito control because of organic farming. We won the U.S. EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2010 for that product. We also did a lot internal sustainability work in terms of reducing our carbon footprint, improving our fleet, working on our facilities. [In our new building] we put more than four hundred solar panels on the roof, renovated the entire landscape to restore its natural prairie, planted orchard trees, and installed raised bed gardens to grow our own food.

[During the Zika crisis] we had this growing feeling of, “we’re not a mosquito control company, we’re not even environmental products and services — we have the potential to impact public health.” [It inspired] a loftier, higher vision of what our purpose was. It created this sense of capability and purpose and confidence so that when the call came [for help from Florida’s Miami-Dade County] there was no doubt about our abilities. We stretched the organization incredibly … everyone wanted to be involved because we are in public health.

Q: What are the lessons you’ve learned that another company could apply in their own situation when they want to go through the transformational moment like that?

A: The broad lesson is the concept of being honest, and allowing yourself to take the risk to expose your honest self as a leader. Finding that leadership voice matters, and being able to say, “I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know exactly where to take us, but I want to try it.” It’s having the courage to open yourself up to that and giving voice to your authentic feelings and thoughts. 

Find people to work with. You don’t have to invent it. So find partners, be curious, go and talk to people. Seek out resources. Go and talk to other companies who are further along. Be prepared to set up systems and processes to make sure you make good work of it. As leaders, be ready to let go of any expectation of what it will be, and let it become what it might be.