COVID-19 Response: Sean Clarke, President, Clarke Distribution

We check in with twelve architects, builders, designers, and suppliers to see how they are managing their staff and their businesses during this incredibly challenging time.

With the coronavirus currently taking over our personal and professional lives, the measures that have been instituted to stop its spread have had a major impact on most businesses, including those of us serving the New England design industry. In times of crisis, we turn to people who have withstood similar circumstances in the past and persevered. We reached out to twelve industry leaders who have led their firms through past crises to share what actions they are taking now, how they will measure the success of their firms over the next twelve months, and how they’re moving forward.

A strong balance sheet, virtual showroom consultations, and plenty of web-based meetings are just some of the things helping to keep Clarke Distribution running during the COVID-19 crisis. Sean Clarke, president, Clarke Distribution shares some of these ideas and strategies in this Q & A.

Home is going to be more important than ever before. How do we keep consumers engaged now?
Clarke is creating as many avenues as we can to engage with and provide value to homeowners and the design community during this challenging time. The very reason for our business is to share expertise and inspire homeowners to create the kitchen of their dreams and then make connections to our trusted dealer network. Our hallmark is the Clarke showroom experience; however, we have pivoted to offer valuable information in new ways so that our customers can keep their projects on track while they are staying safely at home. Some of these points of contact include Virtual Showroom Consultations where our showroom consultants schedule a phone appointment with a customer to curate all of the information that helps us best guide them through the appliance selection process. We follow up with emailed brochures, videos, and other materials to help them consider their options. When we open our showrooms again, customers will know exactly what they are interested in experiencing, saving them time and making their decisions easier. We also have our chefs on call from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, to answer questions from homeowners about the care and use of their appliances, as well as offering recipe tips. We have seven points of contact that we are sending out via email and social media to our customers. Of course, our trade service representatives are also checking in with architects, designers, and builders to offer assistance during this challenging time.

How are you communicating with your in-house teams and outside vendors?
While most everyone from Clarke is working at home, we are still as connected as ever. Phone, texts, and a heavy reliance on web-based meetings are keeping us all connected. As we continue to develop the various points of contact, our staff is sharing best practices and their own experience with each channel.

How will you be defining success in three months, six months, a year?
As a family-owned company, we take our obligation to our employees and their families very seriously. Our primary objective is the care of our employees. After that, we’re hoping to position ourselves by staying engaged and connected to be top-of-mind when the market rebounds. Whether that is in three months or six, we’ll be ready. We have spoken to some in our region who say that customers are seeing the interest rate deduction as an opportunity to plan projects that they might have otherwise put off, so we’re seeing some small positive signs even as the stay-at-home advisories went into place. Further out, success would be coming out of this situation a stronger company that we were at the beginning.

Is there something you implemented at your firm in 2008 that worked that you are executing again?
I think the most important lesson from 2008 was how to continuously prepare for the future. At Clarke, we learned many lessons about how to maintain a strong balance sheet, and how to best work with our partners (from banks and accountants to our retail partners) and that has served us well as this Covid-19 impact quickly became apparent. We drew down cash from our line of credit and applied for the federal SBA loan to fortify our balance sheet to weather the storm. We communicated with our management team quickly and put contingencies in place to help us stay nimble during this time.

How are you thinking about cash flow management differently now than in more normal times?
We’re always careful about cash management, but now we’re watching it even more. It is only prudent to take measures to conserve cash in a situation like this. We’ve adjusted some of our spending and activities to give us some extra cushion should that be needed.

Are there different cost-saving strategies you are leaning on regarding staff, overhead, and discretionary spending?
Certainly, anything that we view as optional right now or something that could easily be deferred until later, we are looking at closely. We’ve made some adjustments to marketing spend, but we’ll still be out there and visible in the market – we don’t want to go away completely. Clarke is known for exceptional events, catering both to the industry and homeowners. We have made a decision that we will not offer in-person events through the end of 2020, as we believe people will continue to need time to embrace gathering in large numbers when this situation is under control. We are working on innovative virtual initiatives to fill that void in the near future. When the storm passes, we still want to be a known and trusted resource in our market for homeowners ready to start a new project or continue an existing plan.

How do you ensure your “all of a sudden” remote workforce remains motivated and productive?
I make a point to stay in close contact with all of the Clarke teams. We have regular conference calls and web meetings. And I stay in touch with people individually to check in on folks and make sure they are doing well. To keep people engaged, we’ve developed a list of role-specific activities people can do from home to stay active, brush up on their industry knowledge, and so forth. So far, everyone is doing really well and other than the showrooms being closed, we’re still operating just like we were before. I’m pretty proud of how everyone has responded.

Design dialog Clarke Distribution

 

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