Local entrepreneur offers sage advice

Readers of the Nevada Appeal editorial pages know former columnist Bob Thomas as a crusty critic of much of the foolishness of both local and national politics.

What they probably don't know is that Thomas is a retired businessman who founded two companies, which he and his partners later sold to Fortune 500 firms at a comfortable profit.

Since retiring from business, Thomas has served on the Carson City school board and was a Nevada legislator for three terms. He's also been active in keeping the Carson City airport in business as well as writing his many columns for the Appeal. He not content to sit back and watch the tube.

Now his first book has been published, "The Fail-Proof Enterprise, a Success Model for Entrepreneurs"(IHC Books, 268 pages, $29.95 hardcover, $19.95 trade paperback).

Disguised as a textbook for innovators, the book is a fascinating look into the world of creating a business. Thomas knows what he is writing about. The two companies were based on concepts he devised, such as requiring those founders who joined him to serve without pay for 18 months and to eliminate wherever possible dreaded middle-management positions.

Thomas tells how, after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he earned a grounding in sales after college (where he put himself through the University of California, Los Angeles, by playing trumpet and on the GI Bill), selling specialized products to the aerospace industry. He rose to be sales manager and marketing chief.

A corporate ownership change resulted in Thomas having time to think and to take a personality exam, which directed him to his strengths.

The basis of his first company, UNI-LOC, was a device to measure and control such things as pH factors in large water-cooling systems (you get a fine education in the complexities of keeping giant cooling systems working correctly in Thomas' book).

It wasn't all a walkover. Complexities with the device and suits over patents roiled the small corporation waters, but thanks to such as Pacific Telephone, UNI-LOC's first big customer, which stuck by the small firm even after being named co-defendant in a patent suit, which UNI-LOC won.

Once passed the initial crises, UNI-LOC prospered, so much so that a buyout offer came. Thomas and associates sold, and he retired. But he wasn't really ready to sit back and contemplate the world so, with associates again, he founded another company, TBI. Ditto.

Thomas tells the story in an easy, informal manner, brightly, self-effacing, funny at times, serious all the rest. He writes a fine narrative, interesting enough to pull even non-business folk along.

Even if a reader has little interest in starting a company, the book is worth a read.

But for aspiring entrepreneurs, it's a must. Thomas knows that there is a time for entrepreneurs and a time for managers. The trick is knowing when the entrepreneur should let go and move on. Thomas knew when to step aside. And he cautions entrepreneurs to be aware that there is a time for them to turn the business over to professional managers.

It won't be as much fun for employees (I know first-hand; I was at Playboy Enterprises when it went public, and something disappeared from the joy there). But when a company grows beyond the Thomas formula of no middle management and other limits, it's time to move on.

Thomas has included a section on "The 10 Rules of the Fail-Proof Enterprise" as well as a Q&A that recaps the book, thus the textbook aspect.

But don't be put off by that characterization. Yes, the book will be used as a text at Hillsdale College. But it's more than that. It's a peek at the kind of person who has an original mind and the courage to use it.

The book is available at Amazon.com and IHC Books, 33 E. College St., Hillsdale MI 49242 in hardcover ($24.95) or trade paperback (19.95); or at (800) 437-2268.


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