MBJ’s Businesswoman of the Year never expected her career to take this path
by Ted Carter
Published: March 7,2014
Thomasson Lumber has a simple slogan: “Just Pole Folks.”
That may have been true for the company not too long ago.
But today, the Philadelphia-based privately owned business now known as Thomasson Company does much more than provide pressure-treated utility poles, though it has been and still is a go-to-place for “round stock offerings,” which include softwood power poles. As innovations in wood uses created new products designed for industrial and heavy construction uses, The 42-year-old Thomasson Co. added the products to its sales inventory and is steadily increasing sales for such products as crane mats, pipeline mats, cross arms, cross ties, railroad ties and other goods in the specialty wood category.
CEO Pat Thomasson learned accounting at the University of Mississippi and later put her skills with numbers to work as the first CPA and founder of the audit department of the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.
But the lumber business — that was the realm of her father, Hugh Thomasson, the founder and force behind the family business over the decades. His daughter figured that’s the way things would stay.
She had no inkling that a supposed short-term arrangement in 1996 to fill in at the company until a replacement could be found for a departing controller would be a life changing circumstance. With a goal of lending Thomasson Lumber a hand, she left behind her pursuit of crooked brokers and investment fraudsters for the fill-in post.
Luckily, the controller decided to stay. And so did Thomasson.
Eighteen years later, Thomasson still crunches numbers on occasion but her main role is guiding and growing an $80-million enterprise that brokers an increasing list of wood-related construction projects throughout the South and the rest of the country.
“In the last five years we’ve about doubled in sales,” said Thomasson, attributing much of the growth to construction mat sales and other new products.
The business growth and stamp Pat Thomasson is putting on the woods products sector led the Mississippi Business Journal to select her as 2014 Mississippi Businesswoman of the Year.
She received the award at the statewide business newspaper’s annual luncheon ceremony Feb. 27 honoring the Businesswoman of the Year as well as the state’s 50 Top Businesswomen.
Executives of the Mississippi Business Journal invited business leaders make the annual award selections.
In addition to running her growing company, Thomasson is an active member of the Women’s Business Enterprise Council South. Through her membership, she advocates for other women in business and is passionate about issues involving the business community.
In 2010, Thomasson became the first woman elected president of the Mississippi Lumber Manufacturers Association. She also serves as secretary of the Rotary Club of Philadelphia. As an Ole Miss graduate, she is founder and director of the Neshoba County Rebel Club.
Thomasson’s 1996 fill-in role at the lumber company never materialized. But other roles did as she began acquainting herself with the family business. “I learned a lot about the operation and the product,” she said in an interview the day after receiving her award and just before a weekend celebration of her 50th birthday.
“I stayed and got more involved in the management of the company,” she said.
After her father reached his 70s, he decided to play more golf and tend to his roses more often. This led to Pat Thomasson taking on an even larger management role and eventually the top job.
“I was CEO before my dad died” in 2008, she said. “I certainly felt the additional responsibilities after he died.”
As CEO, Pat Thomasson opened up the company to an outside board of directors, hired new legal counsel and new CPA firm. She also handed managers more control over their staffs, a move she said she made to set the stage for company growth.
Her management slowly steered Thomasson Co. from its roots as a mom-and-pop company to a diversified regional and national wood products seller. “We expanded our round-stock offerings” to different kinds of buyers, she said. At the same time, Thomasson took the company into the sales of mats for heavy equipment used at large construction sites.
“We had looked at that product going back five or six years,” she said. “Mats are a very cyclical product. Demand was falling off. A couple of years ago we thought it was ticking up so we got into it.”
It helped that a lot its customers for poles and pilings also buy the heavy equipment mats manufactured from hardwood. “We sell to construction companies and now oil and gas pipelines,” Thomasson noted.
While Thomasson Co. still has a softwood lumber mill in Macon, where it has about 25 workers, the company makes only about 10 percent of the softwood utility poles it sells. “We mostly buy from other people,” she said, and added it has a successful relationship with a single source provider of hardwood products. Since “we don’t have a hardwood mill, we are buying it and taking care of the selling and transportation issues,” she said.
As the Great Recession of the last decade set in, Pat Thomasson sold off the company lumber plant in Laurel to clear the way for taking on new product lines.
By 2011, Thomasson had positioned the company to win a bid on a logistically ambitious job of buying and moving large utility poles made of Douglas Fir from the Northwest across country to Maine, where the state had decided to upgrade its electrical grid within its central regions.
The poles — $30 million worth of them — went by train and truck. The permitting alone “was quite a trick,” Thomasson recalled.
The huge bid award went to Thomasson Co., she said, because of the company’s reputation for performance and customer service.
In the end, “We think everybody was satisfied. It was a great piece of business.”
Where to from here?
A lot of the same and some diversification within current product lines, Thomasson said.
“Right now we are very pleased with our investor-owned utility business and would like to see more utility customers.
“We would like to do more piling business and want to add additional mat business.
“We want to stay with the products we have but may diversify with the products we’re selling.”
A key, Thomasson said, will be to keep the teams intact in Macon and Philadelphia, where the company has about 25 people.
“I work with a tremendous team. We came together and we’re still together.”
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