A terrific guy, consummate gentleman, a professional and mentor. These are a few of the ways those in the industrial distribution industry recall how Bob Clifton touched people in his 33 years as an association executive with Fernley & Fernley, Philadelphia, PA. Bob died in early August at the age of 87 (obituary here). Based on recollections of half a dozen friends and business associates, a common thread for Bob throughout his life was the way in which he found ways to help people. This type of person often is described as someone who would give you the shirt off his back. Bob actually did.
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“He was always so well-organized and prepared for meetings,” says Dan Judge, president of NetPlus Alliance, who was president of the Northern Industrial Distribution Association in 1987-88, when his organization merged with Southern (SIDA) and Central States (CSIDA) organizations to form the Industrial Distribution Association. “I remember showing up for a meeting one time in St. Louis, and the airline lost my luggage. It was a Sunday morning, and Bob lent me some money and a few dress shirts. He was a mentor and good friend to me as I became involved with committee work in the association.”
“He had so much poise and confidence in what he did,” recalls Alan Chartier, president of Midwest Industrial Tools, Omaha, NE and president of CSIDA during that time of transition. “When you asked his advice, you had the utmost confidence that Bob would give you an honest answer, and one that was well thought out.”
“He was a progressive man,” says G.A. Taylor Fernley, president of Fernley & Fernley. “He had a persuasive personality and could boil down complex issues. So he was very effective at getting people to think a step ahead.”
Bob graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1944, following a tour in the Pacific theater with the Navy in World War II. He was Business Association Manager with Fernley & Fernley of Philadelphia from 1955 to 1988. Formerly Vice President of the Industrial Distribution Association (now the Industrial Supply Association), American Brush Manufacturers Association, National Coil Coating Association, and The Hat Institute, Bob was also active in the King of Prussia chapters of Optimist International and AARP.
Following his retirement in 1989 with the creation of the Industrial Distribution Association, Bob remained active, both in the industry as well as in civic affairs. He spearheaded efforts in the 1990s through the EDI Coalition to get distribution associations and their members to improve efficiency by adopting common numbering systems and the first generation of electronic commerce tools. It was a challenge, but Bob was largely successful through a unique combination of skills he developed throughout his life. He combined a great sense of humor, people and organizational skills, and an ability to get people to think about the future.
“He was very bright, had a tremendous memory, and was such a raconteur,” says Chuck Stockinger, president of Thomas Associates, Cleveland, OH, and a 40-year business associate of Bob’s as the executive for the American Supply & Machinery Manufacturers Association. “We had many good times together and a good working relationship. He had such integrity – he always did the right thing for the group he represented.”
Stockinger recalled the time his daughter was getting married at Villanova University just outside Philadelphia in 1993, when a 100-year storm dumped more than four feet of snow. “Bob showed up at the hotel, shuttling people, helping them, giving directions for how to cope with the weather. He was a can-do guy.”
Margaret Gernert (formerly Broadwell and a co-worker with Bob at Fernley in the 1980s) shared this story: Bob was visiting one of the top hotel properties in southern Florida to assess whether it would be suitable for a convention. He was with a few other association representatives and the hotel’s vice president of group sales. The group got onto the elevator and emerged at the penthouse floor to review the President’s Suite. Bob noticed a tiny mouse scurrying along the floor and brought it to the attention of the group. As Bob told it, the hotel exec quipped: “Why sir, that’s impossible! Mice rarely go past the 12th floor!”
Bob was devoted to his wife of 58 years, JoRose. They would host an outdoor Easter egg hunt each year for their grandchildren. Ever the businessman with a twinkle in his eye, Bob described the event like this (courtesy of Gernert): “We have lots of kids come over of all ages and sizes. The older ones find the eggs quickly and there’s a prize, so competition is fierce. To even it out, I keep some eggs in my pocket and when the little ones are close, I drop one right in front of them. Sometimes I even put eggs in their baskets. It’s not true capitalism, but it makes for a more peaceful afternoon.”
Bob Clifton was a gifted man in his ability to help groups of all types work better. He left a lasting mark not only on the industry he served, but the individuals he shared his quick wit and insight with so generously.