For Grocers Association president, career comes full circle

Ron Fong ’83 (Psychology) grew up, literally, in his family’s community grocery store. It’s where he and he sisters went every night after school to eat dinner, do their homework and, once they were old enough, work. So when a friend reached out to him in 2008 with a job opportunity at the California Grocers Association, it was a natural fit.

“I didn’t know much about the grocers association,” Fong says. “I went into that hiring process more out of curiosity than anything else, but sitting in a board room with grocery store owners was like coming home. I knew exactly the struggles they were going through. I knew the issues already, from my years of owning a grocery store.”

As the president and CEO of the association, Fong is the statewide voice for approximately 500 retail members and more than 250 suppliers, advocating on their behalf in Sacramento and overseeing the organization’s strategic direction and staff. He also serves as president of the association’s Educational Foundation, which funds scholarships to member employees and their family.

Much of the work Fong does at the Grocers Association involves lobbying for or against legislation that affects those in the grocery industry, from small, community store owners like his parents to corporate giants like Safeway and Albertson’s. The organization just finished 10 years fighting for a statewide ban on plastic bags, a battle that ended when a plastic bag industry effort to overturn a 2014 voter-approved ban failed last November.

Bringing together multiple and often competing voices to develop a unified position on legislation can be difficult, Fong says, but it’s an area in which he can draw substantially on the education he received at Sacramento State. When he began at the campus, he decided to study organizational psychology, believing it would be a good complement to the business skills he had picked up during his years at the family store.

“The skills I learned (at Sac State) are things that I still use in my job as president and CEO today,” he says. “I learned how to deal with problem solving through understanding the culture of people. That’s what organizational psychology does. It helps you understand people.”

Sacramento State also opened his mind to a world beyond what he called the limited environs of his high school and the family store. In one class, he says, he began a friendship with an LGBT woman who was 20 years his senior.

“Without Sac State, I would have never been exposed to a friend like her,” he says. “We ended up keeping in touch for many years after graduation, she was a terrific person. The exposure to different people, different lifestyles, and different cultures was just beautiful at Sac State.”

Of course, like many Sacramento State students, the campus was attractive for practical reasons as well: attending the University allowed him to earn his degree while continuing to work with his family. After he graduated, he began working full time at the store, eventually becoming the corporate president before deciding to get his law degree.

Shortly after he finished law school, his parents decided to sell the business that had been started in 1941 by his grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States from China in the late 1930s. Fong worked for two years as a prosecutor in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office, then spent 13 years with the California Credit Union League, where he eventually became the chief lobbyist, before moving to his current position back in the grocery industry.

“Your career path sometimes takes unusual turns, and you just have to be open to it,” Fong says. It’s a lesson he hopes current Sac State students take to heart.

“Stay fluid and be open to career moves and choices. “What you plan with your degree at Sac State will not necessarily be what you end up doing as a career. Be open to that.”

Kraig Clark’s dream of starting his own business began at Sac State

Sacramento State alumnus Kraig Clark accepts his Distinguished Service Award, during the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards event held in April. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

While at Sacramento State, Kraig Clark ’91 (Accountancy) and his roommate Steve Schroeder ’93 (Business Administration) already were dreaming about the company they one day would start.

“Half of the time we were supposed to be studying, we were talking about different businesses and what might work from a scaling perspective.  A lot of our discussions were related to building a company that could scale.” Clark says. “I don’t think we knew exactly what we were going to start, we just knew we were going to start.”

In 1997 they founded CoreLogic, a data analytics firm for the mortgage banking industry, which they grew into a multimillion-dollar business that eventually resulted in a profitable merger. Today, Clark is the co-founder of JLM Energy, an energy technology firm, and eScreenLogic, an environmental consulting firm.

Clark sees his work as an entrepreneur as being similar to that of a contractor who takes an empty lot of land and turns it into a building, shopping center, office, or something else that becomes used and enjoyed by others.

“You start with nothing, you have a concept and an idea,” he says. “I like building things, “things” meaning companies. You bring a collection of people together, you have a strategy and a concept, and you see if you can turn that into something that’s scalable or livable.”

His current companies merge his lifelong passion for entrepreneurship with another of his interests, sustainability, something he was able to foster while a student at what now is one of the nation’s “greenest” campuses.

“At Sac State, I remember Earth Day, and I had a solar cooker that I experimented with,” Clark says. “In the back of my mind, it was always something that I wanted to explore and the opportunity presented itself and I jumped in with JLM Energy and eScreenLogic.”

Clark, who grew up in Lodi, transferred to Sacramento State in 1989 from Delta College in Stockton and decided to major in accountancy, believing it would give him a solid financial foundation he could use to start his first business. The fact that his courses actually were taught by faculty members, and not teaching student assistants, he says, was a huge benefit to attending, as was a curriculum designed to prepare him for the working world.

His first job after graduation was working in the finance department of a Suisun City-based aerospace company. He eventually became the assistant controller, but left after 4½ years to pursue his longtime dream of starting his own business, which became CoreLogic.

In 2011, he and business partner Farid Dibachi founded JLM because they saw an opportunity to make their mark in the burgeoning renewable energy industry. One year later, they branched into energy storage, meaning they were ahead of the game when Tesla CEO Elon Musk made his own, much-publicized foray into the technology in 2015.

“We were like, ‘Great!’ ” Clark says. “It really helped cut down the time that it took to educate the client. He educated the public, and we were already selling our systems.”

Starting and running his own businesses, however, never has been easy – “There are challenges all the time,” he says – but one thing Clark says that Sacramento State does well is teach students how to be resourceful. He also is pleased that students now can major in entrepreneurship and encourages anyone who wants to follow his career path to be patient, break the rules, and not be afraid to fail.

“If you’re not failing, you’re not trying,” he says. “You have to go through a lot of intelligent trial and error. You’re not going to get there if you don’t try and work hard and put your whole focus into what you’re trying to achieve.”

Clark was one of seven Sacramento State alumni to be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Awards, held last month. He received a Distinguished Service Award, given to University graduates who have achieved prominence in their chosen field and brought distinction to Sac State and/or the community through their accomplishments.

Helping to power downtown Sacramento’s rebirth, one pedal at a time

Sacramento State alum Todd Sebastian, left, and Jason Blessinger are the co-founders of Off the Chain Bike Bus Tours in downtown Sacramento.

There are a lot of new things to see if you head to Sacramento’s downtown these days, from the Golden 1 Center to the Downtown Commons. But Sacramento State alum Todd Sebastian’s contribution may be the most unique – and the one that does the most to tie it all together.

Sebastian ’00 (Recreation) is the co-founder of Off the Chain Bike Bus Tours, which provides tours of downtown on a 15-passenger bus that is powered, via pedal, by riders. Equipped with lights, a sound system, and, yes, a cooler and on-board tap system, the vehicle allows visitors to experience Sacramento’s growing downtown in a slightly offbeat way.

OTC CapThe company’s core mission, according to Sebastian, is “fun” – his official title is “Foreman of Festivities” and his co-founder, Jason Blessinger, is the “Godfather of Good Times.” They rent out the bike for everything from food and beer tastings to corporate trainings to kids’ birthday parties. By offering the tours, and by partnering with dozens of downtown restaurants, bars and other venues, Off the Chain is introducing people to Sacramento’s reborn downtown district.

“I can’t tell you how many people come down here and they go, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t been down here in five years, I can’t believe all the changes,’” Sebastian says. “We hear that every single ride.”

A native of Elk Grove, Sebastian transferred to Sacramento State from Cosumnes River College in part because it was local and affordable, but also because he knew attending would allow him to network and make contacts that would be helpful when he set down roots in the region.

“(Sac State) made me focus, it made me quickly recognize what I loved,” he says. “It gave me a sense of pride with the campus and the community. I still hold Sac State very fondly in my heart.” He doesn’t have to look very far to be reminded of his time as a Hornet: Three of Off the Chain’s five employees are fellow alums.

After graduation, Sebastian worked for the Fair Oaks Parks and Recreation District, and even returned briefly to Sacramento State to work at The WELL and teach some recreation courses. Then, Blessinger approached him with one of his trademark crazy ideas that Sebastian was used to writing off. This time, however, he instantly fell in love with the concept.

The pair were able to pitch their idea as part of the Calling All Dreamers program, an entrepreneurship competition put on by the Sacramento Downtown Partnership, where they finished second. That didn’t net them prize money, but it did give them credibility around town – including with the Small Business Association and the City of Sacramento – and helped them secure a loan.

OTC Brown
Governor Jerry Brown signed the law permitting the bike buses to operate on city streets while riding in one of Off the Chain’s buses.

Even with start-up money and the support of local movers and shakers secured, however, a major obstacle remained: The bike wasn’t technically legal. Sebastian met with lawmakers and over the course of a year secured a change in state law that classified the bikes as “pedi-cabs” and allowed open alcohol containers so long as the vehicle remained under a certain speed and was staffed by both a dedicated driver and a “chauffer” with a bartending certification. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill while riding the bike with his staff.

“That was hands-down the coolest thing I have accomplished in my career,” Sebastian says.

Although bike buses sometimes come with a reputation of being “booze cruises,” Sebastian says they have worked hard to make sure that the bike, not alcohol, is the primary experience. While on the tour, riders can partake in activities such as on-board trivia or karaoke, or participate in Survivor– and Amazing Race-like challenges, which are popular with corporate team-building events.

The two also have worked hard to ensure their presence downtown is positive. The bikes have electric assist technology to make pedaling more enjoyable for passengers, but also to make sure the bikes can be moved quickly in the event of an emergency or the street needs to be cleared. They plot routes that are minimally disruptive to traffic. And they partner with 45 downtown venues, often reaching out proactively to make sure their riders won’t disrupt a restaurant or bar’s normal business. Sebastian often hears back from partners who say bike bus riders liked the venue so much that they came back.

“For us, it might be a long day, we have four tours, and we’re sweating, but at the end of the day, we went to 12 different venues, they all made money, but most importantly you have 65, 70 people leaving with great memories and laughing the whole time,” he says. “That’s the cool thing at the end of the day, when you know you gave those people a good time.”