Beyond These Walls: Clayco’s Bob Clark
Photography By Matt Marcincowski
Written By Carrie Edelstein
His story sounds similar to many who have achieved great success in life. Bob Clark came from humble beginnings. He grew up in Bridgeton and used to stare out of the window at school during classes, daydreaming while watching the construction of the then headquarters of Ozark Airlines. Clark struggled to pay attention in class and says, “I learned a lot, I just didn’t learn what [they] were teaching.” When he was 13, Clark’s dad bought him a book about building, and Clark recalls planning to work on only “big projects,” ambitiously assuming he’d only be constructing large buildings. About a year later, he suffered a traumatic injury to the eye in a shooting accident, landing him in and out of the hospital for 10 months and undergoing 15 operations. “I missed almost an entire year of school, and I think it had a lot of influence on my character.” Clark reflects, “For one thing I came out of the hospital a grown up.”
A graduate of Parkway Central High School, Clark never finished college. Instead he quickly went to work, and turned a 2-person company that started in 1984 into a company that today has more than 2,000 employees, earning $2.4 billion in revenue this past year alone. And Clayco is still privately-owned, standing firm with a “can do” attitude and focus on excellence in customer satisfaction. “I always say that culture and a positive attitude trumps strategy in every challenge,” Clark said recently at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership Annual Meeting.
Clark says Clayco will only work on about 40 projects this year as a company in order to give each project a hands-on, personal approach. We sat down with Clark to talk more about how his vertically integrated approach has led to a 400% growth spurt in the last five years alone.
SL: Clayco is all over North America, you’ve expanded in Chicago, you’re in the midst of incredible projects in St. Louis like Centene, Pfizer, and the new 36-story residential tower on Kingshighway called the One Hundred. Tell us more about that growth.
BC: “I have so many people in the company who I consider family who take care of me and I take care of them. There’s just a lot of chemistry between our business and our lives, in all the things we do in the community they’re all intertwined. The company has grown about 400% in the last five years. At the same time we’ve grown our profit margins considerably more than that, so it’s really been a good run for the business. We’ve been focused on much larger high profile projects both in the development business and in the construction company. What we’ve really been focused on because we’re a really integrated company is having more bites of the same apple. Four or five years ago only 20% of our business had more than three of our services that we offer and now 80% of our businesses have four or more of our services. We have our architectural practice, we have our concrete company, we have our window/curtain wall company, we have our very large technology data collection drone flying business called Uplift Data Partners and we have an experiential design firm within the organization. So we have a lot of services to offer clients and we’ve been doing a better job of cross-selling to the customers and showing our value that way.”
SL: You personally are working on what you’ve said are the projects you want to be a part of that will “make a difference.” What’s your weekly schedule/thought process like?
BC: “Centene is always in my stream of thoughts. I’m really committed to Mr. Neidorff to have an extraordinary building and process there. That’s a high profile very exciting project with a lot of moving parts and obviously impactful to the St. Louis community. At the same time, we’re doing Pfizer’s new laboratory building in Chesterfield which is going to be the most advanced Research and Development facility in the world. It’s a very large, over $200 million project and I think a lot of people don’t even know it’s happening. Newly established gene medicine pharmaceutical development laboratories are being brought to Chesterfield and at the same time it will be where their pilot labs are. Once they develop a treatment or drug they’ll develop how they’re going to manufacture it with a real model manufacturing line, perfect it and then transfer to a plant someplace around the world to actually manufacture the drug. It is probably the most sophisticated building we’ve ever built. Pfizer has allowed us to really implement a lot of new technology in the building both in the way that we’re designing it and the way we are building it with a lot of modular construction which I believe will be the future of the industry. We provided architecture on the project, we were the curtain wall on the project, we’re doing the concrete on the project, we’re the design builder and we’re the developer of the project. So a lot of our services… it’s a true turn-key project. I’m on that project every week.”
Renderings of the new Pfizer building under construction in Chesterfield, MO.
SL: You recently made a decision to grow Clayco’s presence in Chicago where you are redeveloping the base of Willis Tower into a more welcoming restaurant and retail center. You’re adding jobs in other cities as well.
BC: “We’re adding about a billion dollars worth of work in California now. Our next office is opening in the Bay area. We have about 2,000 employees nationwide, but I’m in the St. Louis office almost every week. It’s still where the biggest part of our business is and where most people are. (A recent merger of the architectural group with Bates and now called BatesForum added about 100 more employees to the St. Louis headquarters) I think it’s really interesting that I didn’t go to college but we have these incredibly high demands on our recruits and they are very much so at the top of their classes. We have very stringent requirements. We like to focus about a third of it on personality. We’re looking for the right cultural fit. About a third of it is just how they’re doing scholastically. And about a third is what else are they doing. What’s funny is we’re getting candidates with GPAs 3.8 and higher and not one of my partners graduated with over a 3.0 and I didn’t even graduate.”
SL: So is St. Louis home? What do you like to do in your spare time if you have any?
BC: “Home is not a place, it’s a person. Wherever my wife, Jane, and I are, is home. We are renovating the home my kids grew up in now here in St. Louis. Two of them are here, Katie and Todd and four grandchildren, and two in Chicago. We have a place in Chicago, and spend probably 25% of the time there. My son, Shawn [who works in the company] and daughter, Emily, are there, and we have our fifth grandchild there. We also have a ranch in Old Snowmass [Colorado]. Right now I’m training for the Haute Route, a 110-mile hike through the Alps. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and done a similar trek in Nepal. I just love the outdoors and enjoy being outside. I’ve been strengthening my knees on Art Hill.“
There’s no doubt Clayco has a large footprint in North America, drawing business in 30 states and more than 35 cities. But it’s St. Louis Clark remains committed to. And his hope, as expressed in front of the Mayor of St. Louis and other political and business leaders at the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership Annual Meeting, is for a more unified and positive thinking community. “I think the community would benefit from becoming more unified in having the city and the county merge, and I’m personally a drum beater for that to happen sooner rather than later. It’s not even the money that’s the reason why we should do it. It’s a cultural issue. I think the communities also need business leaders to work very closely with the political and religious leaders to prepare the St. Louis region for the sweeping changes that are happening across the world as we move from an industrial economy to a technology economy. The major changes that are going to happen with people moving from small towns to larger urban areas… the next 20 years are going to really create incredible changes that we are going to have to get ready for.”