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80 Years In The Family: The Lilly Company

Sometimes the secret to staying in business in the material handling industry is knowing when to get out. For Thomas Lilly–founder of The Lilly Company, Memphis, Tennessee, and grandfather of current company president Joe Clark–that time came twice. When Lilly opened his business in 1919, it was as a brokerage house providing linseed and castor oils to medicinal bottlers in the Memphis region. Then in 1925, Lilly took his company in a new direction. Thomas Lilly was an inventor. He built a machine that crushed 300 lb. blocks of ice and carried the chips along a conveyor for diverting and sorting into bags by size. This became a very profitable venture for Lilly: In 1925, ice was the only method for keeping food cold. The business thrived in this form until World War II and the invention of refrigeration. Once again, The Lilly Company changed direction, but as the saying goes, the third time is the charm.

From Ice to Material Handling
Lilly salvaged from his ice crusher the one aspect that had a future in 1945: the conveyor system. He recognized that material handling offered great opportunity for industrial growth and he wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, Thomas Lilly didn’t get that third chance. He died in 1947, but his company did under the leadership of Lilly’s son-in-law, Thomas J. Clark, Jr.
The Lilly Company logo
Tom Clark shared his father-in-law’s vision of material handling and took it to the next level. Lift truck warehousing was just developing in the late ’40s. In 1953, The Lilly Company became a distributor for one of the leading lift truck manufacturers. As Memphis grew into a hub of commercial mail and package distribution, The Lilly Company grew by serving companies like Federal Express. Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Tom Clark stewarded his family’s company through the most dynamic period in material handling. By 1982, he was ready to turn over the business to the next generation, and his son Joe became president after serving 20 years in the military as a commander and pilot of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

Memphis Boom
In the 17 years since Joe Clark became president, Memphis has grown exponentially as a distribution center. Not only have FedEx–the region’s largest employer–and UPS expanded their operations, but other companies like IBM have located satellite distribution centers in the area to respond to overnight orders. This concentration of distribution and warehousing has reaped profits for material handling in general and The Lilly Company in particular.

“We have partnered with FedEx on a number of projects,” says Clark, “and we continue to enjoy a fine relationship with the shipper.” Clark adds that it has been easier generally to partner with customers in the past eight years because of the strong economic expansion.

As a result, The Lilly Company has expanded its regional presence by either opening or acquiring distributorships in Tupelo, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Jackson, Tennessee and Nashville, Tennessee. Over the next year, the company plans to renovate and expand the Nashville distributorship because of the regional growth occurring in the central part of Tennessee.

Additionally, the company recently completed construction of a 15,000 sq. ft. service department area at its Memphis headquarters. This follows construction of the company’s training center.

“We built it primarily for training ourselves and our customers on lift trucks, but the timing of it fell right in with OSHA’s lift truck operator training requirements,” comments Clark.

Looking back on his family’s business, Clark is quick to point out that the 100-employee firm relies on the whole team to succeed. “Craig Avery is our very capable vice president,” Clark says, “Craig lets me look after the company’s growth while he sees to the day-to-day.”

He adds that the secret to growing a material handling distributorship is in being “real small or real big–either being small enough to stay focused on a stable customer base or big enough to have a diverse product and customer base.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have family. One of Clark’s twin sons, Wade, is sales manager of the Nashville office, and Frank is assistant allied sales manager at the Memphis distributorship.

Above all, Joe Clark draws from his grandfather’s and father’s experiences when it comes to growing The Lilly Company. “Sometimes we have to be willing to drastically change,” observes Clark, “in order to build a business that lives on through the generations. That’s something very hard to do in today’s corporate world, but very rewarding when we succeed.”

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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