Foam & Family
Spray Foam Magazine – Fall Issue 2019 – Spray Foam Magazine had the pleasure of getting to know Mitch Clifton, Executive Vice President of NCFI Polyurethanes, and find out a little bit about what makes him tick.
Mitch Clifton (MC): I grew up at NCFI. My father worked here, so it was a place of real importance to our family. Mount Airy, North Carolina is a small place, and NCFI is a big part of the town and the county, so my dad working there was a big deal. So, when I began working on the loading dock when I was in high school, that was a big deal too. I was proud of my dad, he was a hard worker, and to be working in the same place made me feel pretty big. I went off to college and could have gone just about anywhere after graduation, but I wanted to come back to learn and grow at NCFI.
I married and had a family, got into an MBA program, worked full time traveling all around the country, did my schoolwork, and was a dad to two little girls. It was exhausting, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I like to think my dad’s legacy of hard work is in me too.
SFM: When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your free time?
MC: Free time? Man, I have two daughters, so that term disappeared from our dictionary when they were old enough to bat their little eyelashes. My wife, Julie, and I are constantly at spelling bees, ball games, and dance recitals. I still travel quite a bit, and I play the occasional game of golf or hunt someplace. But, when I’m home and there isn’t an event, we sneak away for a hike in the mountains or to the lake to swim and boat. It’s all about family these days.
SFM: Tell us a little bit more about yourself. Any fun facts or interesting habits you would like to share?
MC: Heck, I’m just a guy whose been blessed to do some of the most amazing things I could even imagine: marrying my best friend, having two beautiful daughters and getting to coach their sports teams, growing from the loading dock to leadership at a great American company, meeting and making lifelong friendships with hard working customers all across this great nation, playing golf at some of the most exclusive courses in the world, and hunting and fishing at places most people only see in magazines. I’m the most blessed man I know.
SFM: How did you reach your current position with NCFI?
To Mitch Clifton, it’s all about family these days, pictured here with his wife, Julie, and their two daughters.
MC: The simple answer, really, is hard work. I got into sales back in 1997 and grew my territory into a highly profitable area. Since then, I’ve been in lots of positions in our manufacturing plants, the warehouse, and shipping. I could use my connections to help get my clients their product when they needed it; that really paid off. I formed some solid relationships with customers that I still have today. Eventually, our president at the time, Swanson Snow, called me in and asked me to step up to a manager's role, which I did. We spun off geotechnical polymers into its own division, and I was tapped by our current president, Chip Holton, to fill the EVP role for the construction foam division, which includes insulation and roofing.
SFM: If someone reading this interview would like to follow in your footsteps to reach a similar position, how would you suggest they do so?
MC: First off, get a quality education, then be ready and willing to work your way up the ladder. Learn all aspects of production: raw materials costing, how formulation works in the lab, and then real-world applications. Learn to spray foam. Then, spend time with the customers. Learn what they need and want and how they perceive your products. Eventually learn to lead people, which is not the same as managing people. Leading means being a servant. It also means finding and attracting the right talent mix. Leading means making decisions; it does not mean listening to advice then waiting for someone else, or circumstances, to dictate the choice just so you don’t look bad if your choice fails. Make the decision, clearly communicate it, then go back and observe the outcome. If the choice was wrong, immediately change it. Do not let your ego cling to it and defend it. Learn to fix the problem, not the blame.
SFM: What is your definition of success?
MC: Success is not a destination. Just like mountain climbing in Colorado or British Columbia, when you get to the top, look up to see the next mountain. Climb that one too, and the one beyond and the one beyond that. To me, success is the fulfillment you get from being on the journey toward the top and doing that for a lifetime. Keep climbing.
SFM: Do you have a daily routine that helps you get your mindset right to conquer the day ahead of you?
MC: Absolutely. I start by sitting down to drink coffee while my girls get ready for school and listen to them tell me what’s important to them; it’s always small things. Then, I get a big hug and kiss from each girl and we tell each other how much we love the other. That gets my mind right. NCFI has grown so much over the past few years. I know when I get to the office, there are emails, sales reports, challenges, and problems, so the little morning reminder, that what really matters is how deeply we love and how much we are loved, keeps it all in perspective.
SFM: What are some qualities you believe every good leader should have?
MC: Humility, a servant-leadership attitude, perseverance, strength of character and spirit, serious grit, the ability to constantly assess what we do (why and how), and the willingness to change what isn’t working.
SFM: What is the best advice you have ever received (personal, professional, etc.)?
MC: “Hope is not a strategy,” my dad used to tell me that whenever I said, “Boy, I hope this works out.” He was right, of course. You can’t rely on something to just magically or divinely work out. If you want it to work, do what it takes to make it work.
SFM: What is your favorite part of being a member of the NCFI team?
MC: Our current growth track is really exciting to me. We’ve spent a few years getting all the people and processes in place to grow in the way we want to grow as an independent company, and we’re now seeing the fruits of those labors. Most of our competitors from eight or ten years ago are now gone, or bought up by global companies or private equity. We’ve been content to slow down and focus on the quality and sustainability of our construction products and our core relationship with our customers. People in the industry say we have “legendary customer service,” and that’s not by chance. We’ve focused on serving the trade contractor, whether it’s the quality and consistency of our products or the lengths to which we go to make sure they get their jobs done on time and within their budget. The growth we are experiencing now is coming from the work we did over the past 55 years, and most of it has been over the past five.
SFM: If you weren’t in the spray foam industry, what other profession could you see yourself in?
MC: I’m a pretty simple man, so I’ve always said that if I weren’t in foam, I’d go for one of my three dream jobs: professional golfer, hunting guide, or pilot. And I’d always be home for dinner. See? Simple.
SFM: Do you have a favorite quote or mantra that you keep in the back of your head?
MC: I like country music, always have, and I learned a long time ago from country music that God blesses the broken road. Life is not easy, nor is life fair. The road you walk gets crooked and steep and sometimes it washes out completely, but you have to keep walking. You have to have faith in what you learned, in yourself, in the people who love you, and in whatever guides you. Too many people these days want everything to be simple; to have a guaranteed outcome. That’s one reason you don’t see very young people sticking with careers for 15 and 20 years. I’ve learned that every rut and bend and rock in the road is an opportunity to overcome something and become stronger and wiser. The broken road is a blessing to those who keep walking it.
SFM: Is there anything exciting you are currently working on that you don’t mind sharing with the reader?
MC: The most exciting thing happening now is building and opening our new plant in Houston, Texas. We will be opening a new production plant there by the middle of next year, which puts us right on the doorstep of our raw materials suppliers. It gives us increased capacity, decreased production time, and continues our mission of producing the highest performance, and the most consistent benchmark quality products in a newer, more technologically advanced manufacturing center.
SFM: Looking to the future, what developments are you most excited for in the spray foam industry?
MC: I think, in general, the industry has been amazing at self-regulating and thus, the federal regulators have had very little to worry about. We care about what we do and how we do it, so together the manufacturers have pushed for better, more sustainable materials, better and more consistent training, the use of PPE, more environmentally sustainable blowing agents, and fairer and more accurate marketing of products. We confront the bad factors and we sideline them to the degree that we can. The fact that energy costs keep going up is just that, a fact. So, as codes change, we can count on SPF insulation continuing its ascendancy as insulation of choice for home and building owners. We must also continue our vigilance as an industry at self-regulating what we make and sell, and educating customers on how best and most safely to use it. Product safety, training, and technical support help keep the industry thinking ahead.