Charles Feasts On GFS Roles

May 30, 2006
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KENTWOOD — Clif Charles probably wouldn’t qualify as a spokesman for an airline’s frequent flyer program today. But years ago, when he was a human resources director for the southeast division of a local office furniture maker, Charles could have easily filled that role.

His route took him from Grand Rapids to New York to Dallas and back, over and over and over again. So often, that even the lure of free macadamia nuts on every flight had lost its luster.

“I really knew it was time to get out of that position when I got on an airplane one time and the stewardess called me by my first name,” he said and then paused like he was reliving that encounter before he continued.

“So I knew at that point in time, I needed to do something different.”

And he did. Charles told the Business Journal that his biggest career break came 14 years ago when he landed at Gordon Food Service, a leading distributor of food products across North America that has its headquarters in Grand Rapids. He said he has enjoyed his time at GFS not only because he doesn’t have to run through airports anymore, but because the Gordons have given him the chance to be involved in multiple aspects of the business, which has kept him fresh over all these years.

“They have given me an opportunity to be involved in numerous positions while working here. I started off in the marketing area and I’m not done yet; I’m over in human resources,” he said.

That comment is typical of the humble style for which Charles is known and respected. He is not only in human resources; he directs the department. And his responsibilities as director number as many as the business aspects he has been involved with at the company, including leading the training and development team, conducting performance management reviews, directing employee relocation, and handling employer-relations.

“So it keeps me busy,” he said with a smile in his voice.

Charles began at GFS in marketing as a product specialist and then moved into product management. Then he managed the all-important food-product shows that the firm regularly holds in the markets it serves. After that, he moved into the virtual GFS world by directing the firm’s online ordering and payment section. Then he arrived at his current post, as HR director.

Looking back on those 14 years, Charles said GFS has been a good fit for him.

“Oh, yeah, the values fit and the opportunities have been great.”

For the last six of those 14 years, the Convention and Arena Authority has played a big part in his life, too. Charles is vice chairman of the board that oversees the operations of DeVos Place, the city’s convention center, and Van Andel Arena.

“I truly enjoy it for a number of reasons. One, I like the direction in which the board is moving. The leadership has been excellent from (former) Mayor (John) Logie and (current CAA chairman) Steve Heacock. It’s also given me an opportunity to meet some very key people within the city,” he said of his fellow board members.

Charles also serves on the board’s finance committee, and is heading a CAA effort to get minority residents more involved with the activities at both buildings. He has met with the Hispanic community and a ministerial alliance so far, and is counting on both groups for ideas and help in directing the effort.

“They’ve been open to us. We are in the throes of getting this up and running, and we still have a ways to go,” he said.

“I’m currently working with (SMG General Manager) Rich MacKeigan to develop a strategy to put a plan in place that is going to allow us to do something more long term versus some of the short-term hits that we’ve had. So we’re really still in what I call the infancy stage.”

On the home front, he has been married to Cindy for about three decades, and they have two adult children. Aaron works in Atlanta, while Rachel works for Gordon Food Service. Charles said Rachel has “blessed” him with two granddaughters: Deja, 8, and Nyah, 5, and Aaron has done the same with a grandson, Mica, who is 2 1/2.

Cindy is principal of Hamilton Elementary, a K-5 school in Kentwood, and has plenty of stories to tell about being the head administrator of an elementary school.

“Let me put it this way, she will be able to write a book when this is all said and done,” said Charles with a laugh.

Charles earned his undergraduate degree in sociology from Alma College and a Master’s of Management from Aquinas College. In his spare time, he likes to golf and read. He usually shoots in the mid-to-upper 40s for nine holes, and reads business books as often as he can.

But at least for the immediate future, Charles will be on the links less and will be putting a few more books down, because he sees himself spending more time at his daughter’s house, where his granddaughters live, and at the First Community AME Church, where his spirit lives.

“In my extra time, I’ll do less golfing and spend more time with my granddaughters, and that is a big reward for me. I’ve taken on some leadership responsibilities within my church and I have some work there that I’m very enthused about. I want to continue to do that,” he said.

Charles also wants to continue at GFS — growing professionally with the company and giving personally to the company.

“I would love to do other things within GFS. We’re still growing, and so I’m sure I’ve got opportunities in which to do that. I haven’t picked anything in particular that I want to go after. But the way my career has been moving and with the successes that I’ve had there, I’m sure when those opportunities become available I’ll be strongly considered as a candidate, because I have more to give.”    

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