“When Mission Control announces, ‘T-Minus eight seconds, ’I promise, it’s exactly eight seconds,” John Clark insists.
And Clark should know. After all, his company Masterclock, based in St. Charles, developed the timing systems that NASA’s Kennedy Space Center uses when launching a rocket into space — evolving the accuracy that affects everything from daily operations to lift-off countdowns.
“Our niche is time itself,” says Clark, Masterclock’s CEO. “We make precise, synchronized clocks and timing systems for some of the most recognizable firms in the world.”
The high-tech manufacturer in St. Charles has a surprisingly global — and, thanks to NASA, galactic — reach. Devising systems that are powered by a variety of sources, including GPS, and accurate up to a billionth of a second or better, Masterclock’s work is deployed by broadcasters CBS, NBC and ABC and tech giants Microsoft and IBM, among others.
Another big win: the contract to install 78 digital clocks at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. “Millions of people poured through those facilities for those games, and our job was to keep staff, visitors and players in sync,” Clark says. “Fans do not want to be late for their football.”
Masterclock’s team of 20 engineers, assemblers and consultants serve customers in 104 countries, but the maker has products in use all over St. Louis, as well, including at many local TV and radio stations, the St. Louis Science Center, Busch Stadium and St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
So how does a small, family-owned business in a nondescript strip center on West Clay Street get to more than $3.6 million in annual sales, with 40 percent of those sales to the international market?
“Persistence,” Clark says.
Clark’s parents, Bill and Mary Clark, launched Masterclock in 1994 in a Macomb, Ill., garage. “My Dad left the broadcast industry, saw a need for more precise clocks in that business, and brought a handful of engineers together to create new ones,” Clark says. The company moved out of the garage and into downtown St. Charles in 1997.
The young Clark grew up in the factory, doing light assembling and soldering. “I was cheap labor,” he jokes. Then it was time to travel — a strategy Clark cites as one of the origins of Masterclock’s global presence.
“My Dad took me to my first trade show when I was 15. Throughout high school and college, I went all over the world,” Clark recalls. “I remember telling one professor I wouldn’t be in class the next week. He said, ‘What’s your excuse?’ I said, ‘I have some business in Dubai.’” The professor laughed and told Clark, “See you later.”
The experience shaped how he approached business. “My family believed ‘Never let school get in the way of a good education,’” Clark says.
In 2008, when his father transitioned out of the business (his mom is still an owner), Clark took on a sales position and then became the general manager in 2013. When it was time to step into the CEO role in 2015, Clark also kept making his rounds at international shows.
“My circuit was Amsterdam, Singapore, Dubai and Vegas. We’d go to these shows year after year, constantly bringing new products,” Clark says. “We finally found some differentiators who started pushing our products, and sales took off.”
Clark also attributes his company’s acceptance in other countries to “performance, empathy and ethics.” Those attributes, he says, “translate across cultures more easily than language.”
Another recurring theme: out-maneuvering the competition.
“A rookie wide receiver comes into the NFL and has a break-out year. Well, what’s his sophomore slump going to look like after those defenses have an entire off-season to plan to mitigate his capabilities?” Clark wonders. He says his company’s nimble, turn-on-a-dime culture constantly disrupts products and pricing. “Our job is not to win game-by-game, but season-by-season.”
The energetic CEO is bullish on the talent he finds in the St. Louis region, though he hires for tech skills and curiosity, not for specific experience in time devices. “That we can train,” he says.
In St. Louis and St. Charles, Clark’s out-of-town associates have found all the ingredients necessary for a business to thrive. “They are always impressed by our talent pool, capabilities, and, yes, lower costs of living. We should push those things proudly,” Clark says.
For good measure, he ticks off more incentives to encourage growing businesses to take root here. “Central location. Logistics can be 30% cheaper than New York or California. Regulatory hurdles are relatively low, and the community of makers incredibly supportive,” Clark shares.
There’s no reason to be anywhere else, Clark would tell a young tech whiz or inventor who’s trying to decide between starting their business journey in California or St. Louis. “I’d say, what do you want to do: go to other places to be a cog in something? Or come to the St. Louis region and create something?”
With its niche in time, that’s exactly what Masterclock did – which begs a final question: is John Clark ever late?
“Sure,” Clark says with a grin. “But I can tell you exactly how late.”