New Owner at Thomas & Thomas Resuscitates an Iconic Brand
Neville Orsmond wasn’t thinking about buying the company when he walked into the Thomas & Thomas plant more than three years ago. But by the time he walked back out the door, he was, well, hooked — on the notion of preserving one of the fly-fishing industry’s most famous names, and also preserving what all those who partake in this pastime call a ‘lifestyle.’
When Prince Charles and Lady Diana tied the knot at that quaint ceremony in London back in 1981, President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, chose as a present for the couple a set of matching bamboo fly rods made by a tiny company in Greenfield called Thomas & Thomas.
As proof — not that anyone doubts him when he tells the story — Neville Orsmond points to a framed thank-you letter of sorts hanging on a wall just inside the main entrance to the company’s plant. Printed on official Buckingham Palace stationery, it reads, in part, “it would be difficult to find finer rods, and they are precisely what are needed for the conditions on Scottish Rivers.”
By that time, of course, the royals were just a few of the global celebrities casting their lot, figuratively but also quite literally, with that famous brand, considered the Rolls-Royce of what is now estimated to be a $10 billion industry. And they would be joined by many others over the ensuing decades.
The list includes Jack Lemmon, Eric Clapton, Ted Williams (a famous baseball player but perhaps an even more famous angler), Dale Earnhardt, Joe Montana (casting became the quarterback’s method of rehabbing an injured shoulder), Joan Lunden, James Seals (of Seals and Crofts fame), business mogul Nelson Peltz, and countless others.
But despite such an illustrious client list, Thomas & Thomas, launched in 1969 by brothers-in-law Thomas Dorsey and Thomas Maxwell, was, by 2013, nearly (if you’ll pardon the expression) dead in the water.
It was still producing fly rods, including the bamboo models that are perhaps its signature, and other products, but fewer of them. And the high standards of quality that had defined the company had fallen in most areas, including perhaps the most important — customer service.
Indeed, a cast of successor, mostly absentee owners — Maxwell left the company in the ’80s, and Dorsey sold it in the late ’90s — had failed to make needed investments in everything from branding to manufacturing equipment. And the results were crippling.
This was not exactly what Orsmond, a native of South Africa and serious fly-fishing enthusiast who had relocated to the U.S., was expecting to find when he ventured to the Greenfield plant in late 2013 to personally place an order for several rods. But he quickly became aware of what was happening with this company — or not, as the case may be.
“I heard the company was for sale, and it was in very bad shape,” he said with discernable understatement in his voice. “It was definitely going to go under, and it wasn’t going to be resurrected.”
But seven months and two lawyers later, he found himself the proud but certainly challenged new owner of the venture.
I’m just here to steer the company in the right way. At the end of the day, it’s all the great people we have working for us that make us successful. They get to make these rods every day, and it’s my job to go show them off to everyone and get people excited to buy them.”
He assumed the title of CEO and its responsibilities, he told BusinessWest, because he wanted to quench some entrepreneurial thirst, but, more importantly, he didn’t want to see the iconic brand vanish from the landscape.
“I didn’t want to let that happen,” he said, adding that, while there is still considerable work to do, the ship has been righted, and the brand has been re-energized, as evidenced by the current seven-month waiting time for a bamboo rod.
When asked how the turnaround came about, he stated simply, “by listening to the right people about what they need in a rod and how we can meet those needs.”
Elaborating, Orsmond said that, soon after taking the helm, he came to understand that his assignment had two main thrusts — “internal and external,” as he put it.
The former involved infusing capital, generating enthusiasm, setting ambitious goals, and creating an environment in which they could be reached. The latter centered around aggressive branding, and, in the simplist of terms, letting the world know that the Thomas & Thomas brand is alive, well, and bound for some serious growth.
And when Orsmond says ‘the world,’ he means it. He’s been traveling to virtually every corner of it over the past few years, promoting his products and the sport of fly fishing, while also making time for what he called a lifelong passion.
And as he talked about those travels and the fishing he’s done during them, he dove for his phone and quickly flipped to pictures of a giant trevally (this one four feet long) he caught earlier this month in Dubai.
The enthusiasm with which he did so spoke volumes about the sport itself, but also why Orsmond is now signing the paychecks at Thomas & Thomas, why there is that wait time for an order, and why optimism abounds at the company.
For this issue, BusinessWest explains how this optimism came to be, and why the future of this brand looks exceedingly bright.
Stream of Consciousness
When talking about where they fish — or, especially, where they landed that huge brook trout — anglers are famous for using purposefully, if not hopelessly, vague language.
The reason is obvious; they don’t want to let the world, or even a few people, know the location of their favorite — and most fruitful — spots.
Orsmond adopts a somewhat similar tack when talking about his company’s products and how they are made.
Indeed, when asked about what goes into manufacturing the rods and what separates them from competitors’ offerings, he talked of “materials” — bamboo, fiberglass, and carbon fiber are the main ingredients — and “techniques,” and was rather stingy with details.
“We have a bunch of secret methods for making these rods, and techniques,” he explained — sort of. “It’s all in the design … and how the rod bends.”
He was far more willing to discuss the philosophy behind the company’s production methods, and the difficulty competitors have with replicating the results, even if they have a Thomas & Thomas rod in their hands as a guide.
“Good luck to anyone trying to reverse-engineer this,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while there is, indeed, some engineering involved here, rod making and creating the requisite blend of beauty, strength, and balance is as much art and instinct as it is science.
To best explain what he meant by that, he rose from his chair, walked to the back of his office, picked up a metal tube, and very carefully extracted what might best be described as his pride and joy — or at least one of them, anyway.
What slowly emerged was a seven-foot-long, ‘four-weight,’ one-piece bamboo rod made by Thomas Dorsey more than 30 years ago. Now considered an antique that would easily fetch well north of $10,000 if he were to sell it (don’t get any ideas; that is not going to happen), it represents perhaps the essence, and the epitome, of fine rod making, he explained.
“This is a really unbelievable fly rod,” he said while admiring it — again. “It’s very, very difficult to make a one-piece — there just aren’t many people in the world who can do it; everything is hand-made.”
While that rod is indeed rare, the same focus on quality, and the same attention to detail that spawned it, goes into everything that is shipped out the door and to addresses on every continent, Orsmond explained.
While dozens, if not hundreds, of companies make fly rods, he noted, Thomas & Thomas stands out for its handcrafted quality and one-at-a-time approach to production, something he compared to the legendary London-based gun maker Holland & Holland.
And it’s been this way since Thomas Dorsey and Thomas Maxwell, frustrated that they couldn’t find what they wanted in a fly rod on the market, decided to make their own.
They started in Maryland, but soon moved the operation to Franklin County — somewhat out of necessity. The story goes that a rod-making outfit in the Greenfield area went out of business, and the two Thomases bought the equipment. They found the prospect of bringing the machinery home too expensive and logistically difficult, so, instead, they moved their families and their enterprise north.
In little more than a decade, the company had made such a name for itself that the Reagans, or at least the person they charged with finding a wedding gift for the royals, made a call to Greenfield. (Reagan was so enamored of the Thomas & Thomas rods that he also gave one to Australian Prime Minister Malcom Fraser when was he was visiting the White House; legend has it, says Orsmond, that he was having so much fun casting with it on the South Lawn that he was late for an important meeting.)
But by 2008, a combination of factors, especially the Great Recession and its impact on discretionary spending (and a $1,000 fly rod would certainly fit that description) and largely absentee ownership put the company in dangerous whitewater.
Fast-forwarding through what he called the dark times for the company — he wasn’t there for them, and he didn’t care to dwell on them — Orsmond said Thomas & Thomas didn’t exactly lose its way. Rather, it simply lacked the resources and leadership needed to continue doing business as it had historically.
Orsmond, who was living in New York at the time, working for a company that provided automated parking-garage systems, and “fly fishing every weekend,” wasn’t thinking about orchestrating a return to the glory days when he walked into the company’s plant that day more than three years ago. But he waded in with purpose (another industry term), and has never looked back.
Returning to those internal and external components of his broad assignment to rejuvenate the company, Orsmond said his job has been to simply pilot the boat, if you will, keep it on course, and let the talented rod makers, some of whom have been plying their trade there for nearly 30 years, do what they do.
“I’m just here to steer the company in the right way,” he explained. “At the end of the day, it’s all the great people we have working for us that make us successful. They get to make these rods every day, and it’s my job to go show them off to everyone and get people excited to buy them.”
Elaborating, though, he said there really has been nothing simple about the resuscitation process, and it is very much still ongoing.
“The external side of this took a lot longer because people needed to believe in this brand again,” he explained. “They needed to understand what we were doing and see what was happening.”
The internal part of the assignment was somewhat easier but still challenging, he went on, because employees needed more than words — they’d heard plenty of those over the years — to regain a sense of confidence and optimism in the brand moving forward.
“They had been let down by all the previous owners going back 10 years,” he noted. “It took a lot of capital investment and a lot of time; there hadn’t been an owner here in a decade to make decisions, speak to our customers, and fully understand who were are.”
Much of this hard work has been accomplished, he went on, adding that the task ahead lies mainly in aggressive branding efforts aimed at introducing both the sport and the Thomas & Thomas name to people of all ages, but especially younger audiences, and continuing that process he described earlier of listening to the right people.
This would be customers, many of whom are serious about their fly fishing, and also a core of advisers who rank among the most famous fly-fishing enthusiasts in the world. People like Jako Lucas, from South Africa, an international fly-fishing guide who takes clients to locations ranging from Norway to Mongolia. And Canadian Rebekka Redd, an international fly fisher, TV host, photographer, and author.
“My theory about all this centers on listening to the fly fisherman in the stream,” said Orsmond. “The guy who’s using our rods, the one who’s so proud to hold one and fish with it. We have to listen to him and give him the best product we can every day.”
Looking down the road, or downstream, as the case may be, Orsmond said the company will never be among the giant players in this industry like Orvis, Sage, Winston, and others. But it can grow its share of the market, and he’s intent on doing so.
The company currently manufactures about 3,500 rods per year, and he predicts it can get to perhaps 15,000 in four or five years — and without sacrificing anything of its trademark quality.
“I think we can get a lot bigger; the thing is, though, you don’t want to grow things that quickly. You want to do it slowly but surely,” he said, borrowing the basic philosophy behind the company’s manufacturing techniques he mentioned earlier. “If we grow things out of proportion, we’ll find ourselves with a different set of problems.
“We want to take small steps, and the right steps, to get there,” he went on. “And the steps we’ve taken already show we’re going in the right direction. It’s all from the feedback we’re getting — one e-mail at a time, one fly rod at a time. It’s about making the right decisions and believing in our core values.”
Orsmond’s spacious office on the second floor of the non-descript building on Barton Road tells a good deal of the Thomas & Thomas story all by itself. Well, the wall art does, actually.
There are no mounted trophies here, and serious practitioners of fly fishing know why. “We don’t kill fish — we catch and release,” said Orsmond, using ‘we’ to mean himself and most all other enthusiasts.
There are, however, pictures of fish that have been caught and then released, including one of another giant trevally, this one landed by Orsmond in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. There are also some prized flies mounted within a frame, as well as a picture of Thomas Dorsey.
And then, there are two powerful pictures, on facing walls, which are simply portraits, if you will, of hands doing close work, presumably involved with making fly rods.
Collectively, this art speaks to what the company does, how it does it, and the lifestyle it is trying to preserve for future generations.
That’s a word Orsmond chose carefully and would use more than a few times in the course of this interview.
“This is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle,” he said of fly fishing before using one of many versions of a phrase used to drive home the point that one doesn’t actually have to catch any fish to enjoy this activity. “The beauty of it is why it’s such a perfect lifestyle; you’re always in a beautiful place fishing — there’s never an ugly place.
“Those who fly fish are responsible — they take care of the Earth,” he went on. “They like to spend their time outside; that’s who they are.”
He could have said more, but he decided to let Thomas Dorsey do some talking — at least through a promotional video the company uses (Thomas is mostly retired and was not available for this article).
And talk he did, about fly fishing — “I’ve always looked at it as an excuse to be in a beautiful place” — and about the art of making rods from bamboo. “It’s nothing really special until it’s made into something,” he said of that wood imported from China. “Any bamboo-rod maker does what he does out of passion.”
A strong desire to continue use of the present tense for such comments is the overriding reason why Orsmond said he bought the company. And he believes he and his team are no longer (to borrow yet another industry term) swimming upstream.
As evidence of this, he concluded his tour of the plant in what’s called the ‘bamboo room,’ and for obvious reasons.
There, Troy Jacques, who has been fashioning rods for more than 20 years, had work to keep him busy until well into next year.
He stopped just long enough to explain the long, slow, difficult process of gluing six slender slices of bamboo together to form the pieces for a bamboo rod.
Each rod takes roughly 60 hours to make, he noted, adding that he’s working on several at a time. There are some of what would be called standard production models, but most rods that go out the door are personalized in some way.
“A lot of customers like to add a little flair to the rod they’re buying,” he explained, such as the 10 he’s working on for one company that will bear the firm’s seal and customized components.
It is this craftsmanship and attention to detail that has set the company apart over the decades, said Orsmond, and these are still the defining qualities.
“We like to say that ours is the ‘rod you’ll eventually own’ — that’s our slogan,” he told BusinessWest. “By the time you’ve bought everyone else’s rod, you’ll say, ‘I really want a Thomas & Thomas.’”
This was true 47 years ago, and thanks to his efforts and those of a large supporting cast, in every sense of that phrase, it is true again.
The goal is to make ‘eventually’ come soon.
The Finish Line
Orsmond says, as one might expect, that one-piece bamboo rod he proudly displayed doesn’t exactly travel well. In fact, that’s how he came to possess it; the previous owner was frustrated with its lack of portability.
Therefore, he limits its use to local ponds and steams — anything he can drive to. Which means there’s not much of a limitation.
“We have all these great trout steams around us — the Deerfield River, the Swift River, and many more,” he explained. “So I can put it in the back of the car and go fish; I don’t have to go far at all.”
Such comments explain why Orsmond classifies his efforts as not merely those to preserve and grow a brand. Rather, they’re about preserving and maybe even enhancing that lifestyle he and others believe is endangered.
“We support the people who have the same beliefs that we do,” he explained, referring to organizations like Trout Unlimited and Jackson Hole One Fly, groups working for the benefit of fish and their habitats. “We don’t have much left … our grandchildren may not be able to fly fish for trout if we keep going the way we’re going.”
Such efforts constitute difficult work, especially given current trends and environmental concerns, but it’s certainly easier when there is passion involved.
That’s the word that has best defined Thomas & Thomas from the beginning, and Orsmond isn’t about to let that disappear from the landscape either.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]