BRANDON, Miss.—Looking at the rubber industry, it's easy to see the business, from the global manufacturing giants to the tiny custom mixers. It's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day transactions, industry-rattling mergers and acquisitions, and the bottom-line financials.
That is, after all, what business is.
For the last five decades, Leonard Thomas has seen all of that—and plenty of it. But his view of the rubber industry from the positions he held at both Goodyear and Caterpillar Inc. was never obstructed by the business end of things. No, Thomas always saw something he values far more than business alone.
He saw the people—professionals with unique skill sets, talents and personalities—who make the industry work.
"If you lose focus of that particular idea—that the industry is people—the rubber industry will not survive. People make the industry," Thomas said. "If you find good people, respect those good people and let them do what they do with your support, we will continue to thrive and continue to grow if we do those things."
It was that vision of the industry that guided Thomas as chair of the ACS Rubber Division in 2013. He was the first and only Black man to hold the title, but he is quick to note how diverse the organization—and the industry—has become since.
"Part of my goal when I got to the Rubber Division, I didn't see a lot of diversity there," Thomas said. "My mindset was to bring in more female and more young people there. They were getting older, I was getting older, and everyone was getting older around me. I felt we needed some change."
Since then, the association has become more diverse, with more minority representation.
Thomas' friend, Terry DeLapa, was the first woman to chair the association in 2015 and Kim Dempsey-Miller, the current Rubber Division chair, follows in both their footsteps, becoming the first Black woman to hold the position.
"Diversity has come a long way," Thomas said of his beloved Rubber Division, an association he still is involved with as alternative councilor and soon-to-be member-at-large.
And just as he pushed the association to embrace diversity, he pushed the companies he worked for to do the same.
"During my tenure (at Caterpillar), I hired a lot of female engineers. That (kind of diversity) was not there when I got there," Thomas said. "I hired a lot of people of color when I was there because I went out to Ferris State and I went to Akron University, and I looked for the best of the best."
Pushing the industry to change—both in terms of its make-up and approach to business—is not easy. After all, Thomas said, nobody likes change. But, he added, change is not only inevitable, it's important. Because growth and prosperity are born of change.
But standing alone—or nearly so—in your convictions can be a lonely place.
"It's hard," Thomas said of advocating change. "You have to be of the mindset that you believe this is the right way to do things, that your heart of hearts says, 'hey, the world is changing, and you must change with it. And this change that you are making will make this whole industry better.'
"You'll get your toes stepped on, don't get me wrong. You will get some noise thrown in your face that you don't like. But if you believe in what you are doing, you move forward. You thank them for the information, you don't get ugly with them. But you believe what you believe, and you move on.
"I believe the rubber industry is better served when we have more diversity, more women and people of different races," Thomas said. "If we broaden our horizons, we will see things different. I believed that then and I believe that now."
Thomas, after all, has always believed in people. This single truth has defined his career in the rubber industry and shaped his career outside of it.
You see, Thomas is a full-time pastor, has been for nearly as long as he's been in the rubber industry. This dual career path kept him busy, but he admits he wouldn't trade a second of either for anything. There were times when schedules were hectic for sure, but he found "pure joy" in the work he did.
"If I wasn't busy with the Rubber Division, I had Bible study on Wednesday night and I was preaching every Sunday," Thomas said. "In some cases, I had two churches. So, I tell you, my plate was full. But I'll also tell you I had a good time. And he, the man above, was with me every step of the way."
Often, those two careers intersected. Thomas officiated the weddings of those he worked with. Sometimes, he officiated the weddings of their children. There also were times he officiated the funerals of his co-workers or their family members.
"We were that tight of a family," he said.
That was perfect for Thomas. He did, after all, work in the rubber industry, a business sector he defined by the quality of the people who chose to build their careers within it.
In his mind, there's no other way to see it.