2013 Recipient, Marc Clark

Updated Dec 11, 2015

Marc Clark

It’s fair to say the odds were stacked against Marc Clark entering the work force in 1972 as a teenager. He was small and disabled. He’d spent his elementary school years attending special schools designed to help him compensate for his physical disabilities while identifying a “skill set” that would enable him to earn a meager living as an adult.

Becoming a diesel mechanic in the rough-and-tumble trucking industry wasn’t even remotely an option for a youngster like Clark as far as the “experts” at the time were concerned. The thought of a young disabled man like Clark making vehicle spec’ing and application decisions for a one-day parcel delivery company with a global reach and a massive vehicle fleet was so far-fetched as to be laughable.

But Clark never has paid much attention to well-intentioned – or even ill-intentioned – people seeking to constrain his talents or limit his opportunities in life. Instead he has, quite simply, used all of his talents – including a steel-trap mind, an incredible attention to detail and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge – to stride forward continually in an industry he loves dearly.

“(Marc) is probably the smartest person I have ever met,” says Louis Nathan, global tire program administrator for FedEx Express, where today Clark oversees a 40,000-unit fleet. “He has an in-depth knowledge in just about any topic related to vehicles, from ground support equipment to heavy trucks. He treats his employees well and values their inputs and suggestions.”

Clark sees himself as a man with a mission: Not content to merely do his job and maximize the efficiency and capability of the FedEx Express fleet, he also works closely with the Technology & Maintenance Council and deals with equipment and vehicle manufacturers in a way that will help trucking industry colleagues he never will meet.

“Negotiating with OEs and manufacturers on behalf of FedEx Express means I have an objective degree of influence that is fairly unique in our industry,” he explains. “But whenever possible, I feel I have a moral responsibility to seek out solutions that will not only benefit FedEx but the trucking industry as a whole. The fact is that a fleet manager with 40 or 400 or even 4,000 trucks is never going to get the type of access to manufacturers or have the ability to wield the kind of positive influence with them that I have been allowed. So I always keep the needs and problems of small and medium-sized fleets in mind when I find myself in those situations.”

Twists of fate

Born in Washington, Ind., Clark suffered a cruel twist of fate early in life. When he was 11 months old, he contracted the polio virus. Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine, which virtually eradicated the disease in the developed world, already was out and available. Clark was among the last of the disease’s victims in the United States.

In other ways, fate was kind to Clark. His father, Ernest, was a truck driver for DA Lubricants supporting contractors building the Interstate Highway System; and his mother, Glenda, was known to jump behind the wheel of Ernest’s tractor and spell him from time to time in an age when woman truckers virtually were unknown.

Even better, Clark’s parents treated trucking as a family affair, often taking the youngster on cross-country jaunts. Naturally, the boy fell in love with trucking. His experiences riding across the country with his entire family and observing as his father delivered products to customers created a far more intimate relationship with his future industry than simply watching and waving goodbye as his father drove away.

At the same time, Clark was obsessed with machines and a passion to understand intimately what made them tick. His family tells today how as a four-year old, he disassembled the family’s kitchen table – while his parents were seated at it. Clark remains fascinated with engines and machines and the way they build upon disparate technologies and sciences working together to function properly.

Even though he spends most of his time today sitting behind a desk, Clark’s face lights up when he describes the “sheer joy” of bringing a previously inanimate engine to life for the first time and the immense sense of balance, perfection and satisfaction he derives from seeing an engine he’s worked on functioning harmoniously.

But most of Clark’s childhood was spent in special needs schools that tried to provide some remedial physical therapy in addition to his general education. Despite his obvious talent for machinery, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and drive big rigs one day.

He once mentioned this desire to his father. The conversation at the time didn’t seem like a significant one; just one of the simple chats that take place between fathers and sons every day. But his father surprised him by responding, “I’d much rather see you working on them and designing them, instead.” The comment didn’t mean much to Clark at the time, but it clearly stuck in his mind, and he often reflects on it today.

His mother also was a huge influence on him during this time. As a polio victim, it was only natural that Clark, limited in his physical abilities, felt “different” and left out of many childhood activities that most of us take for granted. Likewise, bouts of frustration or self-pity were only natural.

That, however, was a game that Glenda Clark did not play. “There were those moments as a child where you say, ‘I’m different, and I don’t like it,’ ” Clark says today. “But there was always my strong-willed mother standing there saying ‘Tough. You are different. But you’ve got things to do. So get over that, and get going.’ ”

Fundamental changes

In 1969, Clark lost his father in a truck accident; it was a profound blow. But at the same time, new opportunities emerged: The owner of a small auto repair shop in town recognized the teenager’s inherent mechanical abilities and let him work on cars whenever he could. At school, the verdict passed down by the experts said that Clark would make a decent watchmaker or mechanic – and as far as they were concerned, his physical condition made it apparent which path he would take.

Clark defied their expectations and won admittance into Lincoln Technical Institute’s Diesel Technician Program. It was at the school where his talents truly blossomed for the first time. No longer constrained by a school system or individual expectations as to what he could or could not do, Clark scored off the charts in all aspects of the program and threw himself into his studies.

As he was winding up his time at Lincoln, Ryder Truck Rentals came to the school to hold an employee recruiting session; it was there that another important figure in Clark’s life appeared. Bill Stone was part of a team that was establishing a vehicle prep center for Ryder in the Indianapolis area, and he was blown away by young Clark’s aptitude and skills scores on the various tests the company administered. “I was very blessed,” Clark says today, “because Bill was willing to take a chance on a young fellow who walked funny and put him to work.”

It didn’t take long for Ryder to see it’d made a shrewd move. Clark worked for Ryder part time while he finished at Lincoln. In 1972, he went to work for them full time. In 1973, just one year out of technical school, he won the Indiana Motor Truck Technician of the Year Award.

Clark also was growing in other ways. To overcome his physical limitations, he’d designed and built special tools, like a T-handle pry-bar to help him wrestle the heads off of Cummins diesel engines. His shop work was stellar – but, Clark says, his people skills needed some work. “I was passionate about what I was doing,” he remembers. “I had a lot to learn about tact and compromise and how to take orders.” Away from work, things also were busy; he married his wife, Janis, and began building a life and a family that eventually would produce four children.

As time went on, Ryder – particularly an early mentor, Gary Andrews – took note of Clark’s talents. The purpose of the company’s Indiana facility was to bring new trucks in and get them prepared to go to Ryder locations across the country. At the same time, Clark was getting a firsthand look at how manufacturers dominated the industry at the time, dictating how the vehicles were designed and what equipment they would – or would not – be delivered with.

As time passed, Clark began to realize that as much as he enjoyed working in the shop, it was a tough way to make a living that wore even perfectly healthy men out well before their prime. “I knew I needed to do something else,” he says. “And I remembered my father telling me to design and make trucks. I knew that I really understood the technology and how it could be applied. My superiors saw this and knew that I had good communication and language skills. So opportunities began to open up.”

Clark found himself writing repair and training procedure manuals and quality control procedures for the Indiana facility. As those procedures were proved out, he also began to codify procedures for other facilities. “I was very fortunate,” Clark says, “because I was gaining experience with every aspect of our organization.”

His big break came when his supervisor, Gary Andrews, drafted Clark to begin giving feedback to the manufacturers on issues they’d discovered during the quality control measures he’d implemented. It was a fundamental change, and one that resonates throughout the industry to this day: Since the beginning of the trucking industry, fleets had taken whatever manufacturers offered them with little or no input into the final product.

“For the first time, we could go to the OEMs with hard data and say, ‘These are issues we’re finding repeatedly on your product, and you need to fix it,’ ” he says. “My responsibilities kept growing. We also opened short-term service centers to control costs and began – for the first time – to dictate specification changes to the manufacturers. In a quiet year, we might add 3,000 assets to the fleet. In a busy year, we might add 20,000 new vehicles.”

But once the ball was rolling, it couldn’t be stopped. Clark was spreading the message to secondary suppliers, who found that in order to get – and keep – Ryder’s business, they would have to set up secondary installation centers and outfit the trucks to Ryder’s specifications prior to delivery. It was, Clark notes, a dramatic shift in the way business was done.

A global reach

Stretching into his second decade at Ryder, Clark had become heavily involved in TMC and had played a role in helping the industry as a whole become more data-driven and procedurally oriented. On the other hand, he was in his late 40s and pondering a change.

Another mentor at Ryder, Lynn Gorman, had moved on to a growing parcel delivery company with an audacious mission: Next-day delivery anywhere on the globe. Gorman was in charge of a rapidly growing fleet in multiple countries and a mandate to make that fleet as efficient and productive as possible – all the while competing with the country’s other large parcel delivery service, and all pretty much from scratch. It was quite a challenge, but he knew just the man to assist in the task.

For Clark, who was hesitant to change, it took some convincing. But the scale and scope the growing company proposed proved to be too appealing. “Most people don’t realize that FedEx is really an airline that just so happens to have a fleet of more than 45,000 vehicles supporting it,” Clark says. “Things move at a remarkable daily rate around the world with FedEx services. But there is no package that we handle that does not touch a truck at some point in its journey, whether at an airport ramp or final delivery on a courier van.”

Today, Clark and his team are in charge of a global fleet that ranges in scale from motorcycles up to Class 8 tractor-trailers and everything in between. Clark and his team set the parameters for every aspect of the fleet’s operation – from maintenance intervals to spec’ing and application – while meeting unique cultural and application-specific needs of dozens of countries. Clark may well find himself discussing specs for a new European delivery van in the morning and setting PM schedules for China operations in the afternoon.

“When I think about Marc, the first thing that comes to mind is how intelligent he is,” says Dennis Beal, FedEx vice president, Global Vehicles. “Marc pairs his intellect with good judgment. In a very tactful way, he is fearless when it comes to working with suppliers. If they’re not moving forward the way they should be in terms of developing new technology or taking care of issues we’re experiencing, he’s not afraid to get in the middle of that and take care of it. Suppliers know that when they come in here to do business that they’re going to be held to a standard. Marc sets the bar high, and he’s not going to lower it. I think that’s healthy not just for our organization but the supplier community as well.”

FedEx has emerged as one of the planet’s most recognized and admired companies in – or out of – the trucking and pickup-and-delivery industries, and Clark finds himself more influential than ever when it comes to dealing with OEMs and vehicle suppliers. The decisions he and his team make, directly or subtly, affect vehicle fleets the world over. He is ever-mindful of his belief that he must make decisions based not only on what is best for FedEx, but what is best for his industry and – indeed – the planet as a whole whenever possible.

“In my opinion, what sets Marc apart is how he’s overcome his lot in life,” says Wayne Sinner, a vehicle engineer at FedEx Express who is on Clark’s global team. “When many people may have ‘licked their wounds,’ he faced them head on. This is the same person who, after having a knee replacement surgery, came back to work just days later. He’d installed the therapy equipment in his office so he could work and rehab at the same time. His memory is remarkable. He can recite and recall specifics from years ago. He’s not shy about his faith, either. Although he doesn’t proselytize, he does have a genuine care for others and will share his faith.”

Today, when asked to look back on his career and legacy in the trucking industry, Clark is most proud of the role he played in changing the way fleets and OEMs interact. Be he says there is still work to do in terms of solving the industry’s technician shortage and working out operational parameters for new alternatively-fueled vehicles that soon will begin appearing in fleets around the world. He credits his wife, his strong Christian faith, an unquenchable curiosity and good old-fashioned hard work with his success today.

“I’ve learned that if you have a desire to be successful and want to have unusual experiences in life, it is going to require an unusual commitment to knowledge and intense activity on your part. Beyond that, it is vital that you share your knowledge with others. From my experience, if you do those things, good things will come back to you in return.”