Thombert Inc. is in the minority of family businesses, but in a good way. The Newton, Iowa-based manufacturer of polyurethane wheels and tires for forklifts has been in business for more than seven decades, and now the leadership reins are being passed on to a third generation of the Smith family.
Brothers Robert and Tom Smith co-founded the firm in 1946 and it has been under the leadership of Walt Smith—son of Robert—for most of the last four decades, with Walt Smith becoming president in 1979 before the age of 30, and taking the chairman and CEO titles a few years later.
Now Walt Smith has retired and under the transition his daughter, Lara Nicholson, was named chairman, with his son, William, becoming executive vice president. Dick Davidson, who joined Thombert in May 1977 right out of college, remains as president, a post he has held since 1994.
With this change in management, Thombert has bucked the odds in a couple of ways. First, most family-owned firms don't survive their second generations. Second, more and more family companies—including those in the rubber industry—don't have family members interested in moving the legacy forward.
Smith is fortunate to have not one but two of his children eager to step in.
Other family firms without a new generation in line to take over when the owners are preparing to retire must take other options. Ken Baker of NewAge Industries and Bill Stockwell of Stockwell Elastomerics, for example, both have taken the ESOP, or employee-owned option. The other option is selling the business, and some owners are leery to go that route because they want to make sure their employees are taken care of.
Now while all four of Walt Smith's children—like him when he was a child—were around Thombert from an early age, their father encouraged them to seek out careers outside of the family enterprise. And both Nicholson and William Smith did just that, and Thombert likely will benefit from that experience.
Nicholson has held management positions for companies in the U.S. and England, spending the last 17 years as president of a logistics firm. Her brother worked in finance out of college, joined his father at ITWC Inc.—another Walt Smith-owned company—and stayed on with BASF after that multinational bought the producer of prepolymers.
Both said they are committed to keeping Thombert a successful business, and they will be aided by the steady influence of company veteran Davidson.
Of course, the new members of the Smith family in charge know it's more than business as stake. It's personal, as they try to carry on the legacy of their father and grandfather.