Mr Clarke was the keynote speaker at the JCI (Junior Chamber International) UK national conference, which has attracted delegates from as far afield as the US.
During his speech, Mr Clarke spoke about his passionate concerns about the levels of UK youth unemployment, and how a more robust supply chain had emerged following the horsemeat scandal which had acted as a “cold shower” for everybody in his sector.
He told the audience of around 200 young business leaders that he “hadn’t given enough time to his education”. He left school at 16, and initially worked at a service station, mopping floors and cleaning tables.
He told the audience at Oulton Hall, near Leeds: “It taught me a lot about the importance of all jobs in all walks of life.”
Mr Clarke began his career in retail in Fine Fare in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and with help from a series of mentors, he rose through the ranks at Bradford-based Morrisons and Asda. In May 2010, he became president and CEO of Leeds-based Asda.
He told the audience: “Mentors and coaches, in any industry, will have a huge impact on the people you work with.
“I’m imploring business leaders to get into schools and talk to those GCSE students who should be studying harder than I did.”
In response to a question from the audience about the horse meat scandal, which affected many retailers, Mr Clarke stressed that he had avoided a knee-jerk reaction until he had the chance to understand the scale of the challenge. “We now have an even more robust process for the supply chain,’’ he said.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post after giving his presentation, Mr Clarke said: “When you’re able to talk to somebody outside of your organisation for advice, sometimes they give you a clearer level of thinking about a job role or a particular issue in your organisation. You need to find somebody you’ve got natural chemistry with, who is able to challenge you as well as simply respond to your questions.”
He said his first mentor had been a store manager at Fine Fare who, sadly, had passed away.
“His son made contact with me, so I met him,’’ Mr Clarke recalled.
“I was able to talk to him about the differences his father made to my life.
“I think it was quite nice for him to hear it.”
On the theme of youth unemployment, he said: “It’s abhorrent that there are one million under 24-year-olds out of work.”
Mr Clarke said the unemployment rates among young people were very varied across the country.
He added: “There are more challenges in certain parts of the country than others. I can now look back on my career and how I started, and I wonder what I can give back.
“I gave a talk a few weeks ago to Cockburn School in Leeds. We had a group of 15-year-olds and we just talked about the process I went through.
“I am passionate about this because I think that business can make a bigger difference than we are doing today.
“If business leaders start looking hard at their organisation and how they can leverage the expertise, through coaching, and work experience..then many of these young people will make it.
“Getting those young people into work to learn a craft, a skill, an apprenticeship or a trade is something that’s going to have value for the country.
“We need to spend more time with those bright young minds.
“Getting clear feedback is always important. I’m very fortunate to have a team of people who give me clear feedback about the organisation and about me.
“Or my mentors do. If you don’t get feedback, you can’t improve. Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
Other speakers included Greg Wright, the Yorkshire Post’s deputy business editor, who gave his thoughts on the future of business and journalism, and Emma Eastwood, the Leeds-based JCI UK President.