Dick and Bunny Clark (standing) keep management of Clarks Orthopedic & Medical in the family by including daughter Shelly Weber and her husband, Brent, in the business.
"Mom-and-Pop businesses have the benefits of building close ties to their community, and so it is at Great Falls, Mont-based Clarks Orthopedic & Medical. This HME store has been around since 1957 and it is a well-recognized business in town.
But what happens when the mom-and-pop outgrows its small-town roots? For Clarks, a challenge over the decades has been managing growth while still maintaining the family atmosphere that made the company a hit with customers in the first place. In spite of recent expansion and a move to a store three times the size of its original location, visitors to Clarks not only still find Mom and Pop working there, they find sons, daughters, sons-in-law, and even grandkids.
My 4-year-old granddaughter spends a fair amount of time here. She likes to use the copy machine to make her own paperwork, says Dick Clark, whose father, Ralph Clark, originally founded the company as a prosthetics and orthotics business.
Dick Clark not only took an interest in his fathers business, he pursued and received a degree in prosthetics and orthotics and then purchased Clarks Orthopedic & Medical outright in 1975. But even as an owner, he still functions as the prosthetist. His wife, Bunny, assists customers with orthotics, compression stockings, breast prosthesis, and incontinence supplies.
The company has also continued the tradition of employing family members: the Clarks son, Scott, works in the rehab division; their daughter, Shelly, is in charge of business and marketing; and Shellys husband, Brent Weber, is the operations manager. Another son-in-law, Lee Johnson, operates the elevator division for the company.
But even as the Clarks have kept business in the family, they have also recognized the need to grow. The companys evolution began shortly after Dick and Bunny Clark purchased the business.
An Era of Change
It was the mid 70s, we were coming out of the Vietnam War, and there was a new generation of people with physical challenges, Dick Clark says. Many of our initial customers were prosthetic or orthotic patients who had other needs as well, and were now asking us for help with transportation and for devices to get them around their homes. At the time, those services were offered only on a limited basis in our community, so we started selling these items simply because people asked us to.
Clarks Orthopedic & Medicals largest focus is no longer prosthetics, but HME and rehab, Dick Clark says. It also provides assistance with vehicle modifications, elevators, and lifts.
Serving a wider clientele has meant the physical expansion of Clarks Orthopedics, as well. In January 2003, the Clarks moved into a 19,000-square foot buildingtheir first new facility in 42 years.
Our new space is three times as large as the old one, which allows us to serve our customers in the way we want, Brent Weber says. Our new building also has opened up a number of operational opportunities to us. We now carry more inventory, and its more comfortable for our customers to go into a fitting room with us and try out different seating systems.
Comfort was key in the design of the new building, Dick Clark says. With the larger space weve put a great deal of thought into decorating, and we have a lot of pictures that relate to the culture of Montana, such as fishing, western themes, and the outdoors, he says.
The goal of the new facility was to bring across the warm, friendly company culture, and it succeeded, Brent Weber says.
But with exciting growth, such as a bigger and more professional showroom, also comes a corresponding need for more professional internal operations. We used to do things by the seat of our pants, Brent Weber says.
As part of his contribution to the company, he created a common business infrastructureincluding policies and procedures, employee manuals, and job descriptionsto better serve its now 18 full-time and four part-time staffers. Now we evaluate all our employees annually based on specific criteria, and we have clear guidelines to do our jobs, he says.
Clark admits that finding enough qualified people has been a challenge over the years, but he says they have tried to stay at the top of the heap by sending employees to continuing education courses and tradeshows.
Another change in making the company more professional is accreditation, which Brent Weber says he is looking into. Its not forced upon us, but we want to get that done before its due, he says. It makes good business sense.
Raising Name Recognition
As Clarks Orthopedic & Medical has grown, putting more time and energy into marketing has also made good business sense.
In our old space, we didnt have room to grow, but now we do, Shelly Weber says. So we are marketing a lot more aggressively, including operating booths at the local fairs, taking part in conferences, and doing more advertising. And we had someone design a new logo for us as well, because we wanted to freshen up what we had but still make it look familiar. We also tweaked our old slogan Maximizing Your Potential to be Live to Your Potential.
Brent Weber adds that part of redefining the business to the community includes having all the employees wearing logo shirts and name tags so they are easily recognizable. Still, most locals know Clarks even without that added effort.
I think every day someone asks how were enjoying our new building, he says. We see more walk-in traffic in this location too. People know we are here, and when they have a need, they think of us.
Covering Big Sky Country
The companys dedicated customers are not simply those who walk by the business, however. Dick Clark says he considers the companys primary market area to be about a 100-mile radius.
In some areas, like vehicles and elevators, we cover the whole state and into the neighboring ones, he says.
Such great distances are definitely a special challenge for companies serving Montana customers. There is so much space between people here, or, as we like to say it, theres a lot of dirt between light bulbs, Brent Weber says. As a result, we have to do a lot of traveling, and for many of our customers, its hard to get to us because of their physical disabilities as well as the distance.
Another challenge is that most manufacturers representatives live far away and some perceive rural mom-and-pop companies as being less professional, Shelly Weber says.
They dont get here often, and so they havent always taken us as seriously as other HME companies in more urban areas, she says. With our new location, our changes, and our improvements, however, we can see the representatives are taking us more seriously. They are visiting us more frequently, and they help us more. That has been a really positive change.
Staying True To Their Roots
Even with all the positive feedback that has come from Clarks Orthopedic & Medicals growth, Shelly Weber stresses that it had to be done slowly to keep that mom-and-pop feeland to help her mom and pop feel comfortable about the transition.
Brent and I didnt come in and tell them, Two years from now, we want to take your place in the business. Thats not what our goal is, she says. This company is their baby, so its a little risky for them to make even small, manageable changes. We started with small things on purpose, so that once they saw the positive results from those changes, they could expand their horizons.
This is still the kind of environment where our customers are comfortable with seeing a 4-year-old running around, Brent Weber adds. Even as we get bigger, thats not going to change.
Elizabeth Finch is a contributing writer for Dealer/Provider.