At the fresh-faced age of 23, when most university students are busy with classes and campus activities, Jeff Clarke was packing up his belongings and heading back to Ottawa to take over the family business, Inflector Environmental Services.
He’d just lost his father, Jeffrey Robert Clarke, to lung cancer.
“It was a little stressful,” Clarke, 29, recalls of the most challenging period in his life. “I told myself that if I could get through this, everything else in life will be a breeze.”
Clarke first learned about the cancer diagnosis a few months earlier from his father, who, following their initial phone conversation, flew out to St. Mary’s University in Halifax to visit with Clarke, a fourth-year commerce student and eldest of his three kids.
Their time together included catching a university football game, followed by socializing with some old buddies over dinner. The pair discussed the future of the family business, which specializes in hazardous substance remediation and abatement.
“He told me at that time that he was going to beat the cancer and, once he did, that he was going to slow down afterward. He wanted me to come in and take over the family business because he wanted to focus more on enjoying life.
“He said if, God forbid, he didn’t make it that he would want me to step in,” says Clarke, who was left feeling honoured but also caught by surprise.
Clarke Sr., 58, died on March 9, 2014 from complications following his surgery for lung cancer. The work-hard, play-hard entrepreneur had lived a life that was larger than most. He was a master of career reinvention before founding J.R. Clarke & Associates in 1994.
“My father has been my biggest inspiration, without a doubt,” says Clarke while expressing his gratitude toward a man who provided his kids with opportunities he’d never had himself while growing up in a family of seven children in Halifax.
More than five years have passed since Clarke became president of Inflector. He’s now also CEO.
At the age of 24, Clarke became the youngest member ever granted membership to the Young Presidents’ Organization. At age 25, he received OBJ’s Forty Under 40 award.
Inflector made the Growth 500 ranking of Canada’s fastest-growing companies in 2018 and again in 2019, most recently by posting 138 per cent revenue growth over the past five years.
In memory of his dad – a fighter to the end – Clarke is participating in the Fight for the Cure fundraiser for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation on Oct. 19 at the Hilton Lac-Leamy.
He and 11 other white-collar boxers have been training for months under the exceptional guidance of Scott Whitteker.
Clarke, who’s taking on Kyle Turk from Keynote Group, has become the top individual fundraiser in the event’s history. He originally aimed to raise $100,000 before bumping his goal up to $130,000 at the time of the interview. He's now reached $161,000 (a number which continued to climb to nearly $180,000 in the days after his fight). He’ll also be fighting on behalf of his cancer-surviving mom, Margie Clarke.
“My goal isn’t about winning, it’s about raising $130,000,” says Clarke. “If I can do that, I’ll be happy.”
There were naysayers, those who wanted the family to sell Inflector after its founder passed away, but Clarke – who started working there at 16 – had other, bigger ideas.
“I always thought the company had tremendous potential,” he explains.
The firm’s headcount has now swelled to 300 and continues to grow. It has offices in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Halifax, and its clients include schools, hospitals, industrial plants, nuclear laboratories, paper mills, companies in the mining, oil and gas sectors and construction firms.
Locally, Inflector has done work at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the former Domtar industrial lands – the future home of the Zibi sustainable waterfront community.
“It’s really not my success; it’s 100 per cent to do with the people we have here,” says Clarke, rattling off names on his executive and management teams, including chief operating officer David Walsh and vice-president of finance Mickelene Crawford.
“A lot of them have grown with this business and have become tremendous leaders in their fields.”
One of the first things Clarke did in his new leadership role was to make Walsh – his father’s right-hand man – a partner, as had been his father’s plan. Walsh has 30-plus years of experience in the construction industry and has overseen more than 10,000 projects.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Clarke says.
The key to success, he adds, is “not letting the juice get to your head,” to quote one of his mentors, Tony Sottile, former CEO of Modern Niagara Group.
“Just because things are good today doesn’t mean they’ll be good tomorrow. Many entrepreneurs fail every year, and even the best ones have lost a business or declared bankruptcy.”
You might say running a business is a lot like boxing – you always have to stay on your toes.
Five things to know about Jeff Clarke
1. He was inspired to participate in Fight for the Cure after watching another one of his mentors, developer Jeff Westeinde, in the ring last year.
2. He was born in Halifax but moved with his family to Ottawa after his dad got a job with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.
3. He graduated from St. Mary’s University after flying back to Halifax in the spring of 2014 to write his exams. Engraved on the inside of his university ring are the initials of his dad, who had to drop out of SMU due to financial constraints.
4. He’s on the board of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation and a table captain for its President’s Breakfast. He’s also involved with Christie Lake Kids and Ski For Kids, which his father formerly co-chaired.
5. He worked in the field for many years on some of the dirtiest jobs one can imagine. He dismantled boilers the size of large homes in average temperatures of 50-plus degrees C – torch-cutting and hammering in full suit and mask. He says he loved the work and misses the peace it gave him.