10 Coolest Entrepreneurs: James Clarke


-1In his mid-20s, James Clarke was assigned to escort Warren Buffett for a day. As a catering and wedding sales manager for Sundance, Clarke was trying to get Buffett’s business but also keep him company at the brand new RC Willey store in Boise.

Buffett told Clarke that when he was in his 20s, he had more ideas than money and now it was the opposite.

“Keep the good ideas coming and stay creative,” Clarke remembers Buffett saying.

That was a pretty cool day.

But Clarke has had a few, including one lucrative weekday in 2011 when he sold Clearlink after a decade of running the Salt Lake venture and building it to a thousand employees.

His initial to-do after cashing the check from Pamlico Capital was to move to Provo.

“It was literally the first thing on our docket,” Clarke says. “My dad is from Provo, and my grandfather was a principal at BY High and a dean at BYU.”

It was Clarke’s roots but also his entrepreneurial wings that brought him home.

“If you look at the deals that have taken place in technology the past 30-plus years in Utah, the vast majority are Utah County-based,” Clarke says. “There have been so many iterations of the intellectual capital that came from Novell, WordPerfect and even Omniture. Each class of entrepreneurs has built the next class of companies. I would bet on Utah Valley over Silicon Valley any day.”

And Clarke bets with his pocketbook. Clarke Capital Partners is a power-packed office of 12 that manages assets in the growth equity stage of businesses. In other words, the Provo-based fund seeks out, funds and helps to operate the “next big thing.”

“We actually lock arms with these partners of ours — our portfolio companies,” Clarke says. “Their problems are our problems. We are operators first and investors second.”

While many investors are working toward the multi-digit exit of their company, Clarke says the sell date is almost anti-climatic.

“In reality, when you sell you miss the day-to-day interaction with the people — you miss the battle,” he says. “Selling is gratifying and it’s generally the right thing, but the coolest part is always building the company. When the dust settles, you look back at the great things you created. And that’s why our firm is the way it is — we are not just deal-generators. We excel at operations.”

Operations was a term Clarke understood as a child — even when his friends were playing the buzz-happy game of Operation.

[pullquote]“Selling is gratifying and it’s generally the right thing, but the coolest part is always building the company. When the dust settles, you look back at the great things you created. And that’s why our firm is the way it is — we are not just deal-generators. We excel at operations.” —James Clarke, CEO of Clarke Capital Partners[/pullquote]

“As a young boy, I was different from my friends,” he says. “They wanted to be Michael Jordan and wear the cool black and white shoes. I wanted to own the Bulls!”

His business fetish grew when he moved to Rexburg in kindergarten as the son of an insurance adjuster. “I thought we’d landed in the North Pole,” he says.

But his version of Santa Claus was his aunt Sybil Ferguson, a wildly successful entrepreneur who donated lockers to Clarke’s junior high and helped fund a football stadium for his high school.

“As a little kid from a farm town, I saw the spoils that could take place from building a big business,” he says. Now he’s sharing the “spoils” from his Clearlink win.

“We truly believe in infinite opportunities, finite capital,” he says. “We’ve got to focus on deals that make the highest impact, and that impact includes financial but it also includes the influence on families and employees in the geography where we are located.”

Clarke’s purposeful decision to land his family and his business on the Utah County map have also had tasty benefits, as his favorite place for a business lunch is Sundance.

“I can leave my office and pull into the Sundance parking lot in 12 minutes,” he says. “I recently had one of my professors from Oxford in town, and we hopped on a chairlift and had our meeting. Sundance transcends everything and takes you to a different place … Utah County is literally the place to be.”

Drink Order “I start my day with a red or green smoothie.” (Check out his wife’s recipe here.)

Coolest Splurge For the first eight years of our marriage, we lived one door over from the artist Arnold Friberg. We loved his art, and he spent hours sharing with our young children his experiences with the Queen of England, Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille. A few years after he had passed away, Andrea and I were able to buy a collection of his original paintings that had been owned by Warren Buffett.

Coolest Day As A Boss The day we sold Clearlink. I hated saying goodbye, but I loved watching the reactions and feeling the mutual appreciation when I handed each of our managers, directors and VPs a completely unexpected bonus to thank them for all that they had done to help build the company.

Coolest Mistake Early on in my first business, I had a chance to invest some of our initial profits into a start-up headphone company. The ask was $500,000 for 25 percent of the business. The choice was either to reinvest in our own company or to place a bet on an unproven entity. I chose our company instead and missed out on what was a $100 million check when that company, SkullCandy, went public years later.

Coolest Adventure Our coolest adventure was definitely our trip to India for a business school class reunion. The trip started with a fitting for Indian wedding suits, then off to the countryside riding in jeeps to see tigers, riding camel carts into the desert, playing elephant polo, moonlight dinner overlooking the Taj Mahal, a Bollywood dance party, tea with the prime minister and finishing with a ride in vintage American cars to an Indian palace wedding on Valentine’s Day in those suits and saris.

Coolest Quirk I wear a suit to work everyday. Not too common in Utah County, but it sets our team apart and people understand that we mean business when they meet us.

Coolest Office Policy Our office walls are all glass and we have a clean desk policy. Mess it all up during the day, but clean it up before you head out. This helps productivity and focus.

Coolest Childhood Memory Growing up in Idaho, I started working on potato farms at age 12 and it was the hardest physical work in some of the coldest weather I would ever know. My family grew up as “have nots, amongst haves,” but I had an aunt who would occasionally call and tell me to meet her pilots, who would take us in her helicopter to a floating dock at her Island Park cabin — or in the middle of winter would fly us on her plane to a warm destination a few hours away. She was my business inspiration as she grew up like me and then showed me that with hard work, anything was possible. 

Coolest Word “Sensational!” It’s not overused and it describes off-the-charts achievements. My kids laugh whenever they hear it come out of my mouth, which makes it that much more fun to say.

Coolest Office Item Two Harley Davidson Motorcycles that remind me to keep promises. Both are from my birth year in 1972 and are parked in our hallway because they’re cheaper than art, look better … and I promised my wife that I would stay off of road bikes.

Coolest Office Tradition Veggies before dessert. In our 4M — Monday Morning Management Meeting — we talk about what’s wrong and not working first. Colleagues are able to chime in by adding help, by giving suggestions and by making introductions of contacts that might be able to provide actionable solutions. Then we talk about the good and end on a positive note.

Coolest Business Failure I bought a small apartment building in Idaho Falls while in my early 20s. It was far more work to renovate and rent than I ever imagined. I especially remember the day dead rats fell on me as I ripped out dry wall and ceilings. I had multiple chances to break-even and sell, but out of pride, I hung on and lost it all. It was a great lesson to calculate costs first, cut losses if necessary and don’t make dumb decisions out of pride.

Coolest College Class MCOM 320. One of toughest classes of my undergrad, but I learned lessons I use every day in business.

Coolest Trait As A Team Member I hope I’m one who is enjoyable to work with.

Coolest Leadership Trait Operator first, investor second. We’re a smart organization, but we know how to “dig ditch” and execute.

Coolest Compliment Received “You fight above your weight class.” Partners and colleagues react with surprise at how much our small team has done in such a short period of time.

Coolest Dream I’m living it.

Coolest Local Business Pro That’s an endless list. So many “cool” entrepreneurs and business people here in this county. When I started my first business in Utah Valley in 1999, within one shared office included Todd Pedersen & Keith Nellesen (founders of Vivint), Ryan Smith (founder of Qualtrics), Sean Clark (of MX), Chris Henricksen (founder of Haloprime), Dave Hunter (early LDS film maker/developer), Adam Legas (Founder of RIVEN), and so many others who influenced me and have elevated the entrepreneurial landscape in our backyard. That was a cool place to go to work everyday!   

Coolest Networking Experience I was able to interview 17 entrepreneurs for my dissertation while at Oxford that had built or managed companies with a collective enterprise value of almost a half trillion dollars. It was a powerful sample for research, and now that list includes some of my closest friends and business partners.

Coolest Business Moment I was asked by the parent of a special-needs student to help save their non-profit training organization that a school district had decided to shut down and turn into a parking lot. We’ve been successful in keeping the organization running and we continue to serve the 120 special needs adult students who otherwise would have nowhere to be every day.   

Coolest Advice Received

“You’re the best…until you’re not.” It’s simple and might be trite, but it motivates me.

Read about all our “coolest entrepreneurs” here.


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