NEWTON, Iowa—Thombert Inc. has thrived for the last 40 years with Walt Smith at the helm. His reign as the top executive of the firm has come to an end and he has passed the baton on to two members of the third generation of the Smith family and the company's long-time president.
An innovative leader in the polyurethane industry and one of the early members of the Polyurethane Manufacturers Association, an organization in which he has remained extremely active since its early days, Smith has stepped down from his posts as CEO and chairman of Thombert.
His daughter, Lara Nicholson, has taken over as chairman of the business while his son, William Smith, has been named executive vice president. The CEO post will be filled in the future.
Dick Davidson, the president of the Newton-headquartered manufacturer of urethane wheels and tires for the electric fork lift market, will continue to run the day-to-day operations, as he has since 1994.
Smith, 71, has had a highly successful career at Thombert—which operates production plants in Newton and Brooklyn, Iowa—and at ITWC Inc., a company he founded in 1988 and built into a very profitable prepolymer producer.
Today Thombert, which has a work force of about 135, is the largest manufacturer of urethane tires and wheels for electric fork lift trucks in North America, Smith said.
The right fit
Co-founded in 1946 by Robert and Tom Smith, Walt Smith's father and uncle respectively, after Robert returned from World War II, Thombert has grown steadily over the last 73 years. Initially, the business was a wood working operation where Robert Smith made custom kitchen cabinets.
Thombert branched out into the manufacturing of products made with a then little known material, polyurethane, in 1958. It was the sixth business Bayer A.G. licensed to make polyurethanes in North America. Thombert molded all sorts of polyurethane goods but ultimately its development of urethane tires and wheels marked the beginning of the firm's very steady growth.
Walt Smith joined the firm on a part-time basis as a teenager during summers in the mid-1960s, working in the plant at a variety of jobs including making thermoset polyurethane.
It was around that time that Thombert slowly began producing tires and wheels for a single client and eventually for other fork lift companies.
Walt Smith's high school years were spent in Indiana at Culver Military Academy—now called Culver Academy—where he said he received an outstanding education that helped set the stage for his days in college and in the workplace. He graduated from the academy in 1966.
While attending Iowa State University, he worked at night as a machinist for a machinery maker that was a specialist in water analysis. He graduated from Iowa State in three years, thanks primarily to the prep work he had completed at the academy, he said.
Smith went into the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant immediately after college on a four-year hitch, but got out in less than two as the war in Vietnam was winding down and the U.S. was cutting its military forces.
He had job offers in hand from Standard Oil of Ohio and other companies when he received his discharge, Smith said in a recent interview. He presented them to his father and his dad matched those offers.
"So, I thought, this is a good deal," Smith said. "He's trying to be competitive and he's treating me with respect like he always has. So I went to work for Thombert."
It was a move he said he has never regretted.
Smith handled virtually every job on the production floor at Thombert, and during the next eight years he continued to demonstrate strong management and leadership skills.
He also became heavily engaged with the PMA, which was formed in 1972. He was especially involved as head of the organization's statistics committee, which aimed to create best practices guidelines. That included activities related to the use of MOCA, a carcinogen that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled in 1973 was dangerous and virtually unusable.