Lilly History

The Lilly Company: A Family Business Since 1919

When Thomas Lilly–founder of The Lilly Company and grandfather of current company president Joe Clark, opened his business in 1919, it was as brokerage house providing linseed and castor oils to medicinal bottlers in the Memphis region. Then in 1925, Lilly took his company in a new direction. Thomas Lilly was an inventor. He built a machine that crushed 300 lb. blocks of ice and carried the chips along a conveyor for diverting and sorting into bags by size. This became a very profitable venture for Lilly: In 1925, ice was the only method for keeping food cold. The business thrived in this form until World War II and the invention of refrigeration. Once again, The Lilly Company changed direction.


From Ice to Material Handling
Lilly salvaged from his ice crusher the one aspect that had a future in 1945: the conveyor system. He recognized that material handling offered great opportunity for industrial growth and he wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, Thomas Lilly didn’t get that third chance. He died in 1947, but his company did under the leadership of Lilly’s son-in-law, Thomas J. Clark, Jr.

Tom Clark shared his father-in-law’s vision of material handling and took it to the next level. Lift truck warehousing was just developing in the late ’40s. In 1953, The Lilly Company became a distributor for one of the leading lift truck manufacturers. As Memphis grew into a hub of commercial mail and package distribution, The Lilly Company grew by serving companies like Federal Express. Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Tom Clark stewarded his family’s company through the most dynamic period in material handling. By 1982, he was ready to turn over the business to the next generation, and his son Joe became president after serving 20 years in the military as a commander and pilot of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

Joe Clark draws from his grandfather’s and father’s experiences when it comes to growing The Lilly Company. “Sometimes we have to be willing to drastically change,” observes Clark, “in order to build a business that lives on through the generations. That’s something very hard to do in today’s corporate world, but very rewarding when we succeed.”


In the 27 years since Joe Clark became president; Memphis has grown exponentially as a distribution center. This concentration of distribution and warehousing has reaped profits for material handling in general and The Lilly Company in particular. As a result, The Lilly Company expanded its regional presence by either opening or acquiring distributorships which now includes locations in Memphis, Jackson, Knoxville and Kingsport, Tennessee; Tupelo, Jackson and Biloxi Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and, Madison and Birmingham Alabama.

In addition to the expansion of its regional presence, Lilly also developed a diverse product line built around the needs of any warehouse or distribution facility. With forklift sales leading the way, design and installation of rack and shelving, storage bins, industrial equipment such as scissor lifts, personnel burden carriers, tow tractors, batteries, and chargers all are a part of the diverse product line. All lines are supported by comprehensive Parts, Service and Rental departments.

Today & Beyond
Being in business for 95 years means that The Lilly Company has successfully navigated thru changing economic times. Whether in good times or trying times such as the challenges of the current economy, Joe Clark knows that leadership becomes a critical element. In 2011, Clark, current Chairman of the Board, appointed his twin sons to vital leadership positions. Wade Clark is now President and Frank Clark fills the role of Vice President. To balance out the Leadership Team, Eric Wisher was named Chief Operations Officer. Together with their knowledge, depth of experience and integrity, they are positioned to truly maximize the potential of Lilly for years to come.