A new branch of the family business

Nate Clemmer sees driving an old car as being a roadblock to pride. | Photos by Nathan Good

Pennsylvania man comes from a long line of entrepreneurs but follows a new path.

By Nathan Good

Many businesses in North America are family businesses. Opportunities grow as a business passes from generation to generation. But challenges arise as well. Few people know this dynamic as well as Nate Clemmer. If he had chosen to, Clemmer would have been the sixth generation in a family business. Growing up in Souderton, Pennsylvania, 30 minutes north of Philadelphia, Clemmer lived several blocks from the business his dad and extended family ran.

It was a mill bought by Clemmer’s great-great-great grandfather, Christian Moyer. Christian bought the mill in 1869 and ran it with his brothers. In fact, it was first called “Moyer and Brothers” before being renamed through the years to “Moyer and Son.” In the family, they called it “The Mill.” The business was a real part of the family. Much of what Clemmer learned about running a business came from dinner table conversations. Every Sunday, the extended family got together for a meal. They weren’t working, but stories and conversations often centered around The Mill.

Being part of the family did not automatically make someone part of the business, though. When a child turned 16, they were assigned a liaison from within the family business. They met once per year to discuss their interests. There were certain rules for returning to the family business. One of the primary rules was that a candidate needed to have at least three years of meaningful work outside the business. With this system, the business continued to change hands for five generations. However, there were never more than five or six partners at one time. The system whittled down possible owners to those most interested.

Another large part of Clemmer’s family and the business he came from is the connection with the church. Jacob Moyer, the third-generation president of Moyer and Son, was also the first pastor to be called by lot at Souderton Mennonite Church in 1914. This is a practice in some Anabaptist churches when choosing a pastor. Several young men were selected by the congregation. Ultimately, Jacob was chosen by chance from that group. He was not paid for his pastoral responsibilities. At the time, the rest of the family needed to pick up the extra work in the business. The mission of the business became focused on financially supporting the ministry.

Nate Clemmer at age 14.

This continued through the generations. In the fifth generation, two of Clemmer’s uncles chose to become pastors themselves. For the 110 years that Souderton Mennonite Church has had its own pastor, 84 of those years, the pastor was a descendent of Moyer and Son. For those in the business who are not serving as pastors, supporting mission and ministry became very important to them. Reflecting on how culture is passed on through a family business, Clemmer said: “When you grow up around a dinner table and [your grandfather], and dad, and various uncles have all shared stories about things that have happened and how they treated people, those things flush through… No one is going to do a better job preserving how we want people to be treated than our own kids.” Clemmer always assumed he would return to The Mill. However, as he grew older, he became less certain. Ultimately, his dad chose to sell his shares in the company, and Clemmer did not purchase them. As part of his buyout plan, Clemmer’s dad created a new company from the fertilizer division, which became SynaTek.

No longer part of Moyer and Son, Clemmer returned to help his dad develop this new business. “In many ways, it feels like a continuation of 175 years in the family business, but in other ways, it’s a new tree,” he said. Grounded in generations of tradition, Clemmer and his father have focused the business on innovation. Clemmer is not afraid to try new things; in fact, that is where he thrives. SynaTek has become the parent of several innovative brands. One of these, called Branch Creek, is creating environmentally friendly solutions at an affordable price. One example is a chloride-free ice-melting product. It won the Innovation of the Year Award from the International Sanitary Supply Association. Used by the Denver Broncos of the National Football League and BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, it is an innovative solution with a large reach.

Despite this innovation and success, Clemmer is hesitant to talk about his accomplishments. During an interview, he said at least half a dozen times that one of his biggest fears in life is becoming a jerk. Clemmer sees pride as a slippery slope. He truly prizes character over accomplishments. In many ways, this is part of the culture that Clemmer received from his family. “As a kid growing up, we knew a business needs to make money,” he said. “Profit is not a bad word. But profit is not why we exist. … My motivation … is to try to generate as much money as possible to be able to plow back into initiatives that I think have an impact in bringing the kingdom of Heaven to Earth.”

This impacts not only what he does with his money but also how he runs day-to-day operations. Influenced by stories from the life of Jesus, Clemmer prioritizes people. He focuses on character and putting others first. This may come from family anecdotes, like “we pay ourselves last,” that modeled this approach to business. Turning ideas into action is also important to him. “We highly value people in more ways than just spoken words and cool sayings that hang on a wall. What does it really mean for people to be your number one asset? For our company, we’ve been deliberate (about) creating an environment where all the members of our team are treated as our number one asset.”

He intentionally uses communal language. Employing over fifty people, he refers to SynaTek as “our company” and wants his employees to feel like they work with him rather than for him. This also impacts his personal life and practices. In an effort to stay centered on Christ and resist pride, Clemmer focuses on giving over getting goals. One practice for developing character was driving a nearly twenty-year-old, worn-out car as a roadblock to pride. “Pride is something we see in the Bible; it is really clear that it leads to destruction. I just recently got a new car. I tried so hard to keep the old one going. But it wouldn’t start. I could get it to start by turning the key so hard that it felt like it would break in the ignition. That worked for a month or two. And then one time, I went to turn it off and pulled the key out, but the car was still running.”

He was out shopping. He let the car run out of gas in the parking lot and finally bought a new one. “You can have the best day. You can close a deal and make a lot of money. But you get in a car that’s worth $400, it’s like, you come back to earth real quick.”
Clemmer also has intentional practices around prayer. Every morning, he prays through his day. He wants to commit each thing to God but also will change his plans based on what he senses God wants. He has been resistant to strategic planning in his businesses. It seems to him that trusting God and having a five-year plan contradict each other. As his businesses have grown, he has realized the need for clear communication with his team.

Nate Clemmer in the warehouse of the family fertilizer business.

His strategic planning doesn’t happen in front of a whiteboard. He gets away for a day of prayer. This time of prayer turns into a three-year strategic action plan, which he continues to update through more times of prayer. This approach to life and business has led to success. However, Clemmer encourages people not to copy what he has done. If anything, he would encourage people to learn from his practices. For him, the core of life and business is staying humble, connected to the Christian community, and grounded in Christ. Much of this thinking comes from the culture he was handed from generations of Christians perfecting the art of doing business in order to support ministry.

What Clemmer does intuitively is embodied Anabaptist theology. But he isn’t focused on the preservation of the Mennonite Church. For him, what is most important is following Jesus in faithfully bringing the kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven. .

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