Jeff Clarke Jr. was in his last year studying business at St. Mary’s University in Halifax when he got the call that changed his life.
His father, Jeffrey Robert Clarke, had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. An adventurer who dropped out of university to sail to the Arctic, Jeff Sr. vowed to beat cancer the way he’d triumphed over other setbacks. When an economic downturn spoiled his career selling real estate in Atlantic Canada, he moved to Ottawa to work for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. In 1994, following Mulroney’s resignation, Jeff Sr. pivoted again, launching a business to sell energy-efficient window coverings. When that didn’t pan out, he moved into duct cleaning, and then into asbestos abatement. That stuck. Based in the south Ottawa suburb of Greely, Inflector Environmental Services earned a reputation for quality in the dirtiest of businesses.
Like his father, Jeff Jr. is a salesman by nature—although he had set his sights on a Bay Street career. In late 2013, when his ailing father asked him to come back to the family business, he couldn’t say “no.”
Four months later, in March 2014, Jeff Sr. passed away. Jeff Jr., the eldest of three children, came home to a totally new life. But as he struggled with grief, final exams and the pressures of taking over the company—all while fending off opportunists trying to buy Inflector for a bargain price—he saw it all as one challenge: “It’s not likely to get any worse than this,” he told himself. “If I can get through this, we can do anything.”
Four years later, Inflector is alive and thriving. With five-year sales growth of 109% and consistent profitability, the company has recently worked on such high-profile projects as the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology and the Zibi urban-renewal project on former industrial lands on the Ottawa River. Clarke has also expanded the company into selective demolition and equipment rentals, and recently opened an office in Halifax. Coming in at No. 469 on the Growth 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies, Inflector’s story of innovation and expansion in the face of tragedy can inspire any entrepreneur managing significant business change under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Fortunately for Clarke, credibility wasn’t the problem it so often is in cases of second-generation succession. Clarke, now 28, began swinging a sledgehammer in the family business at age 16; unlike many scions on the job, he was never given any special treatment. As a result, when he abruptly became CEO, Clarke was not only known by employees decades his senior—he had earned their respect. David Walsh, Inflector’s longtime second-in-command, credits Jeff Sr. and his wife, Margie: “Anything those kids wanted, they had to work for.”
About Walsh: Clarke’s other coup was to convince his father’s former lieutenant to stay. A veteran of international asbestos-abatement projects, Walsh had joined the firm in 2001 to launch its remediation business. By offering Walsh a hefty equity stake, Clarke stabilized the company while fulfilling a promise his father had made to make Walsh a full partner.
Operationally, things at Inflector were steady. But Clarke wanted more than the status quo—an issue over which he had butted heads with his late father. “My dad had no ambition to grow the business,” says Clarke, who saw growth as a natural outcome of providing great service. With new business in mind, Clarke spent his early days as CEO calling prospects himself. “I tried to meet with every contractor and consultant in the industry,” he says. “I wanted to let them know: We’re stable, we’re here to stay, and we want your business.” He was dogged; when he finally reached one prospect and introduced himself, its CEO said: “I know who you are. You’ve called my office 29 times.” The result: “A lot of people gave us a lot of business,” Clarke says.
As new clients came in, Clarke honed Inflector’s edge by focusing on employee training and job-site innovation that enables the company to win tough jobs that other firms turn down. In one project, for instance, Inflector devised a new chute for removing hazardous material from buildings more efficiently and safely.
Clarke also learned on the job. “The biggest thing no one teaches you is cash flow,” he says. The slim margins and long payment schedules of the construction business were eye-opening: “I had to learn to make sure there was more coming in than was going out. This is the stuff that helps you scale.”
To augment his learning, Clarke developed an informal board of advisors made up of friends of his father who were eager to see Inflector succeed. He also joined the Young Presidents’ Organization, becoming its youngest member in Canada, which has helped him to refine his leadership—and build valuable relationships. For instance, when a U.S.-based YPO colleague in the hotel business called him in a panic after asbestos was discovered in one of his properties, Clarke had a crew on-site the same day. That firm remains a loyal client today.
Strong personal networks helped in other areas, too: A friendly accountant tipped Clarke to an upcoming auction of heavy construction equipment. Clarke arranged financing with a banking contact and acquired a host of new assets for 10 cents on the dollar. That’s now the heart of Inflector’s new rental business, which last year sent dehumidifiers and related hardware as far afield as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Through hard work and strong relationship-building, Clarke managed to compensate for his family’s procrastination in planning for generational transfer. Not every business is so lucky, says Eric Gilboord, founder of Toronto-based WarrenBDC, which specializes in helping companies plan for sales and transfers of control. He advises family businesses to document all processes, and to create structures that allow the firm to run without the CEO present. “You end up with a manual that allows pretty much anybody to come in and take over,” says Gilboord, who also recommends holding a “fire drill” in which family, senior staff and advisors workshop what happens to the business if mom or dad passes away.
Ruth Steverlynck, a partner at Vancouver consultancy Your Family Enterprise, adds that these conversations can be awkward, but they are key to building trust among all affected parties. “And trust,” she says, “creates outcomes that will actually work.”
At Inflector, Clarke’s navigation of a potentially fraught transition has earned him the faith of many—including his partner. “He’s on the go all the time. He asks people what they think, and he listens,” says Walsh. “I had no idea we could get to this level.”