Don Clarke was teaching a seminar for General Electric in Australia 20 years ago when he was approached by one of the attendees.
“You’re Don Clarke, the legend,” the attendee said.
“Really? I thought all legends were dead,” Clarke replied with a laugh.
Since that day, Clarke has continued to build his impressive legacy in the asset-based lending industry and calling him a legend at this point may be an understatement. With his expertise in all aspects of the ABL business, his dedication to education and his entrepreneurial spirit, Clarke has made a lasting impact on the industry, earning plenty of distinctions along the way, including being named to the Secured Finance Network’s Hall of Fame this year.
“I’m humbled by my success, but I’m also humbled by the fact that I don’t know everything and there’s a lot to learn in life,” Clarke says.
Building the Legend
Clarke came to the United States from his native Jamaica when he was 18 years old after successfully earning his GCE certification from the University of Cambridge. While he initially aspired to be a doctor or journalist, he eventually found his way to the financial services industry, becoming a teller at Bankers Trust and eventually ascending to a head teller role while going to school at night. From there, he took on a role as an auditor in the accounts receivable finance area for Bankers Trust and a lifetime love affair with ABL was born.
Clarke would go on to work for Bank of New York and then, when he and his wife moved to South Florida in 1978, Heller Financial and Southeast Bank Leasing Company, where he rose to the role of chief credit officer and CFO.
Eventually, Clarke was called to the entrepreneurial life, leading him to launch Asset Based Lending Consultants, which is now a provider of lender services such as field examinations, monitoring services, loan management and more. Of course, when the business first launched in the late ‘80s, ABLC was primarily focused on field exams, but it has grown significantly since its launch, even if it had an auspicious start.
Clarke says he and his wife sent out 400 letters to potential clients over the first six months of business and got silence in return. With cash dwindling, ABLC finally booked its first field exam, and the rest is history, with the company bringing in $1 million in revenue by its third year in business, according to Clarke.
“You need patience in this business. If you’re a true ABL lender, you have to micromanage the process because you’re lending against assets that turn quickly,” Clarke says. “ABL lending requires proactivity, it requires paying attention to detail, to be hands on.”
An Expanding Menu
While some of the fundamentals of ABL remain the same, there has been plenty of change in the industry during Clarke’s professional life. Clarke says what was once a one-product market is now inundated with new offerings. Additionally, Clarke says the industry now has better rates, more competition and a global reach.
“You’ve seen a growth in the menu,” Clarke says. “It is a global product to lend to middle market and under-capitalized companies. It is here to stay and actually it’s expanding.”
Through all the changes, Clarke still finds the field examination and underwriting process the most intriguing part of ABL
“Field examinations and underwriting are sacrosanct; they’re linked together,” Clarke says. “That’s my favorite part of it, discovering and disclosing risks to the lender so the lender knows how to structure the deals.”
Although Clarke has his favorite aspects of ABL, he still learned and mastered other elements, and with how the industry continues to evolve, he says he’s not done learning yet.
“Where else do you get to learn and be a part of a lending platform that has a global reach and is the lending methodology that works for middle market, under-capitalized companies?” Clarke asks. “There has never been a boring moment.”
Educating the Industry
Clarke’s status as a legend in the ABL sector is built on more than his work with ABLC. Throughout his career, Clarke has been a champion of the industry and one of its most active and effective teachers. He conducts seminars and teaches classes globally on all manner of topics for multiple organizations, spreading knowledge about field exams, account management, operations, underwriting and more. Clarke, who got his start teaching in 1981 after attending a field examiner seminar in Los Angeles, takes education so seriously because it can expand the horizons of the next generation and build an even better industry.
“If you learn lending in ABL, you could be a lender anywhere else because to me, ABL is blue collar lending,” Clarke says. “You roll up your sleeves, you get to know people, you know the business, you know the risks, you go out and meet, shake hands, see the business.”
Clarke extended his teaching reach when he co-published a book with the Commercial Finance Association (now SFNet) in 2005 titled “Asset Based Lending Disciplines,” which still serves as essential reading for anyone getting started in the industry. Clarke, who, as a recipient of distinction in English from the University of Cambridge, has always enjoyed writing, says that a new edition of the book will be released early in 2022.
“It’s mentoring people, making sure that the next generation is as equipped as I was because when I came to the business, there was no formal training,” Clarke says. “They sent me out and you either sank or swam.”
Be the Thermostat
Clarke isn’t expecting to retire anytime soon and has plenty of plans for the future. He says he’d like to work with the World Bank to serve as an ambassador for the ABL industry in third-world countries while continuing to teach and grow ABLC. He’d also like to write another book and create new higher education classes crafted for ABL with an eye toward supporting the next generation, particularly people of color.
“I want to be the shoulder that people stand on, that minorities and people of color stand on my shoulder. I want to mentor them as much as I can because there’s a space here,” Clarke says. “This is where you can make a career, earn a good living and you can make an impact.”
When it really comes down to it, Clarke wants to give back and create positivity in everything he does, as he also prides himself on his charity work, including working with a local food bank through his church.
“I think the greatness of a man should never be measured by the car he drives, the house he lives in and the money he has in the bank. Greatness should be measured by how many people that he took with him in his ascent to the top,” Clarke says. “I don’t want to be the thermometer that measures the temperature. I want to be the thermostat that sets the temperature.”