By Tina Irgang
Nick Clark has founded four companies, but first, he was a soldier. He served in the Defence Force of his native Australia, and later went on assignment in Cambodia as a U.N. Peacekeeper. Today, Clark leads Alexium, a company that develops chemical solutions with an emphasis on human and environmental health. As part of that mission, Clark and Alexium are working with the Department of Defense to make U.S. Army soldiers’ uniforms safer. Here, Clark discusses the lessons of his military career, and what it means to be a true entrepreneur.
Before you became an entrepreneur, you were a U.N. peacekeeper. How did that come about, and what was the experience like?
Clark: It was just during my time in the [Australian] Defence Force. It’s just one of those standard postings — you join up, something goes on, you head off to Cambodia, do your bit and come back. … The one thing I really took away from that is a remarkable perspective on life — not underestimating how bad the world can be and how bad people are, but also not taking for granted some of the niceties that you have in your own life and your own country. … You come back from something like that with a very different perspective than if you were just touring the place, because you see things that aren’t necessarily very attractive about human nature.
Does a transformational experience like that also inform the way you lead your company today?
Clark: There can be no question that a military background is something that helps form the foundation of who you grow up to be, if you embrace that experience. You can certainly walk away from having served in the military and not be any better than you were when you joined, but if you embrace the experience and what [the service is] trying to embed into you, you walk away with a very different perspective. A lot of those catchphrases people use these days, such as honor, integrity, character, respect and loyalty, they do tend to sort of be catchphrases people use to boost up their speeches or make themselves sound good. But the people who don’t tend to use those words very often, they’re the ones who tend to be able to lead and manage in a very productive way.
How did you come to be an entrepreneur?
Clark: My father was an entrepreneur, so I guess it helps if it’s already in the blood. My dad set up a number of his own private companies and did very well from them. I saw what he did and just saw that there was a lot of value in being able to create something out of nothing. … Everybody’s built differently — some people get up in the morning and go to work, and they’re very comfortable with that process, with that routine. I just didn’t find that very comfortable, because … I never thought I was making progress that I could create a legacy from. I think the real entrepreneurs, the heartfelt ones, want to create a real legacy — something that they can be remembered for. And if it’s not about creating a legacy, it’s about creating or saving something that maybe just couldn’t have been saved, but you sort of take it from the ashes and you’re creating jobs and creating fortune. You’re changing people’s lives. I think it started off for me with wanting to do something that ultimately I had my hands on. I would make my own destiny and create my own fortune, my own losses, my own company. … You can have entrepreneurs where all they care about is money money money, [but] how much do you ultimately really need in life, other than to never want for anything and just be happy?
Your company, Alexium, is working on a contract for the Department of Defense to develop fire-retardant treatments for military uniforms. Tell me more about that.
Clark: So the U.S. Army right now has two sets of uniforms. One set is not treated with a flame-retardant chemistry and another set is treated. In most cases, the uniforms that are treated are the uniforms that soldiers wear when they’re in combat. The reason we can’t treat all uniforms is because it’s costly, and the other issue is that it’s a toxic-based chemistry that’s applied to those uniforms, and it’s … called halogen-based bromide. That creates a lot of issues such as developmental delays in children. It can cause thyroid issues and a number of relatively serious health implications if worn for long periods of time, especially if it leaks due to sweat and all that yucky stuff. … We were able to do a chemistry of 50-50 nylon and cotton that could be applied to military uniforms. It’s an environmentally friendly chemistry and in fact makes the uniform better at practically half the cost. So we effectively outfit the entire army at the same cost, which is naturally a very good thing because it protects soldiers’ lives. … We’re in the final stages of testing to then go into procurement, and everything’s going very well. It’s not a big earner for us at Alexium … but it feels good because you’re doing something good for these people. You’re providing something. It’s not always about making the biggest margins and the best profits. Sometimes it’s about doing something that’s good for society.
Aside from your work at Alexium, what matters most to you?
Clark: That’s an easy answer — people. You can have the best tools in the world, you can have the best product [but] if you don’t have good people and you don’t promote good leadership and good management, … it will never be effective. The greatest value that you can ever place in your company as a leader is contentment. When your people are content, your business runs well. As CEOs and leaders, we get so caught up in our own self-preservation and our own self-interests that we tend to forget the people that helped us get there. … The long-term, sustainable CEOs, no matter what happens in that person’s career, they’ll always find themselves somewhere by ensuring the people they lead are content.
About Human Element:
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.