Henry Clay is a well known historical figure in Kentucky, and one of my favorite Kentuckians. He is someone I think of often when it comes to addressing complex business problems, or innovating around tough challenges. Born just a few years after the birth of America herself, Clay served as a member of the Kentucky legislature, a United States congressman, a United States senator, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and a statesman during the most formative decades of our great nation.
The story of Henry Clay and his impact on America is well told in school history classes across the country. Lost, unfortunately, is what made him the consummate Kentuckian. He was a true horseman. He began racing thoroughbreds in the early 1800s and raised them in 1830, making him one of the Kentucky horse industry's early fathers. He was part of a Kentucky syndicate that bought the legendary stallion Buzzard, who became a noted sire of winning racehorses. Descendants from his most famous stud, Yorkshire, have won the Kentucky Derby 11 times. Clay's position in government and success in racing and raising horses established Kentucky as "The Horse Capital of the World."
While most of Clay's significant American contributions were in the realm of politics, I think of him as an example in the realm of business. In business, as in politics, innovation merges elements of both old and new.
Clay was an American innovator through and through. He understood that creating something new meant taking parts of what was already there and building something new from a common foundation. He believed that genuinely hearing people when they talked about what was important to them would lead to finding solutions to complex problems, and he took all viewpoints into account.
Clay was America's secret innovator, carving out solutions to problems as complex as the War of 1812, states' rights, the creation of California, and Texas's borders. Coming from the "border" state of Kentucky — situated at the division between "North" and "South" — Clay brought us together as all Americans with a spirit of American unity and is widely credited with holding the Union together throughout the first half of the 1800s.
What would Clay make of the old and new competing interests at play in my own business life, between the historical waste conglomerate landfill owners and customers looking for new ways to manage their waste? How would Clay find compromise between a company like Rubicon, innovating an industry that hasn't seen innovation in over 2,000 years, and the business interests maintaining the status quo?
In creating Rubicon, we bridged the old way of managing waste with a new solution, using technology. We empowered smaller haulers to go after big contracts and gave our customers better solutions for their waste. Henry Clay inspired me to find the right path in navigating my own business disputes. His example of finding solutions in even the most polarizing arguments served as a moral compass for me in navigating challenges that seemed impossible.
Clay lived a very full life to the age of 75 and spent more than half of his life in government service. During that time, he helped found the National Republican Party and the Whig Party. He helped pass a massive body of legislation, which served to unite government and business interests as the new nation emerged from colonialism. He was secretly the great man behind some of the greatest moments in American history.
Today, it is more imperative than ever that we remember Clay's example. Real innovation will come at the intersection of what is old and what is new, and we, just like Henry Clay, must find what is essential to solving our tough challenges.