Bob Thomas Alum of the Month
Question.) When did you graduate from WCU and in what subject area?
I graduated in 1970. I earned a BA in Social Science with a concentration in History and Political Science. I was interested in history, especially American History, from an early age. In the latter part of my college years I thought that I would pursue a legal career but after serving in the military, I discovered that I also had an interest in business.
Q.) What are some of your fondest memories of your days at WCU?
Football and basketball games (especially watching Henry Logan in the late sixties). Social events and fellowship with my fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha. Serving in Student Government – I was President of Men’s House Government in my senior year. Building my self- confidence and critical thinking skills during my college experience.
Q.) Who were your favorite professors at Western Carolina and why?
There were many influences. I really enjoyed William Lattimer, Professor of Political Science and Dr. David Hosler, Professor of History. They both had a wonderful way of making the subject matter interesting and relevant. There was also a professor of Latin American History, Dr. Carl Donathan, who taught pre-Columbian History in a way that was fascinating. Bob Waters and Dr. Charles Neufeld, Professor of Economics, were both advisors to my fraternity and had a big influence in shaping us as young men. And finally in my role with student government, Doug Davis – Dean of Men – advised me as the leader of Men’s House Government.
Q.) Bob, you had a very a distinguished and successful career with Scott Paper Company, and most recently as President/CEO of EIS Inc. (a subsidiary of Genuine Parts). Tell us a little about your career path and how you got there.
I entered the U. S. Army after graduation. This was the time of the war in Vietnam. I finished my military service in Texas in 1973. My wife Pam, a native of Chicago, and I met in San Antonio. She and I married after she finished college. I needed to start a career and I entered sales with the Industrial Division of Scott Paper Company in Houston in late 1973. I quickly moved up the corporate ladder through field sales to sales management to business unit and division leadership in a number of domestic and international roles. We relocated several times living in Houston, Philadelphia, Greensboro, Chicago and Hong Kong. Along the way Scott Paper sent me to Stanford University to study international marketing. Scott Paper Company was an excellent business experience and helped me develop most of my business leadership skills. For that, I am very grateful. My last role there was Vice President of the North American Commercial Business.
Scott merged with Kimberly Clark in 1995 and I had an opportunity to move into another industry. Morgan Crucible PLC, a British public company headquartered in Windsor, England, approached me about a role in Atlanta leading one of their businesses which led to another opportunity to lead several European businesses and one operation in South Africa. I traveled much of the world over the next four years.
Deciding to permanently locate in Atlanta led me to finally look for a role that would keep me primarily in the USA after having spent ten years of my career living and working in Asia and Europe. EIS Inc. was acquired by Genuine Parts Company in 1998. I had developed a friendly relationship with a couple of their executives since the company was a customer during my Morgan Crucible tenure. They were looking for a senior executive leader to replace a retiring executive. So, I joined them in 1999 and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2002 and to President and Chief Executive in 2004. I was fortunate to have the support of a highly effective leadership team that helped me develop and execute a plan that transformed EIS into one of the most successful subsidiaries at Genuine Parts Company. We also made 13 separate bolt-on and transformative acquisitions over the last ten years of my career and that was very exciting.
My career led me into several different industries from paper, to chemicals to wire and cable and electrical materials in both manufacturing and distribution. The one common element of all these businesses was that they were all “business to business” or what is commonly referred to as industrial businesses. I never had an experience in a retail type business. I think that because I understood the common model of a business to business enterprise, I was able to adapt to different industries, suppliers and customers and the challenge of quickly learning new businesses made it fun and gave me many different experiences all over the world.
Q.) Bob, you have been very involved with the Western Alumni Club of Georgia and have played a key role with the Atlanta Alumni/Student Job Shadowing Program as well as the Georgia Freshman Student Sendoff. Why do you feel it’s important for alumni to stay connected with their university?
The job shadowing program started as an idea several years ago with Rod Eckard (69) who lives in Atlanta and was my roommate in Moore Dorm in 1968-69 as well as a fraternity brother. Western gathered WCU Alumni business leaders in Atlanta and found many to be enthusiastic about helping give students close to graduation a day of experience in their field of study. It is a very active day and finishes with a Q&A experience and dinner with students and sponsors. There have been a number of students hired over the years as a result and I am proud that my company was one that actively participated and that those that interacted with these students often made comments about the high quality of students being produced at WCU.
The Freshmen send-off (a Bon Voyage event) is about five years old. I can’t take credit for the inception of this event but did provide a location at my County Club that we use and my wife Pam and I sponsor the event each year. We just completed our 2017 Bon Voyage on July 16th. These new students represent the class of 2021 and they were enthusiastic and bright and looking forward to entering WCU. We have had wonderful support from WCU in giving these new students a pre – arrival orientation along with their parents and they all seem to appreciate the warm welcome into our Western family. I understand that we have more than fifty new freshmen from Georgia entering this class – a record number.
Q.) Bob, as a member of WCU’s Foundation Board (the university’s chief fundraising board), why do you feel it’s important for alumni to give back?
First of all, I’m honored to serve on the WCU Foundation Board for the last four years and I currently chair the Development and Engagement Committee. Pam and I established an endowed scholarship several years ago and we are also active contributors to the Catamount Club.
For the first 25 years after graduation, I was unable to get involved due to living in other parts of the world. I tried to keep up with the university but that wasn’t easy in the years before the internet. I wanted to be an active alum but like many graduates I found that family and work took priority and distance from Cullowhee made it impossible.
I can only speak for myself but I know people get more introspective as they get older. Your family is grown and you’re entering the next phase of your life. As you look back on your career and your life, you consider your accomplishments and those things that you are most proud of. You think about the influences in your life – the people who prepared you and gave you the tools and experiences to succeed. Western Carolina was certainly in my top three and I just wanted to be more involved.
My story was not unique at Western - even today. First generation college graduate from a family with little money. Entered college with anxieties about academic preparation and finances. Worked hard at succeeding academically and worked harder to make spending money. Fortunately, tuition and expenses were reasonable enough in the late sixties that I did not leave college with debt. Under similar circumstances today with the cost of an education, even at WCU, that would be more difficult without taking on the burden of debt.
So, I found a way to gratefully give back to the school through the Foundation Board. Through our engagement with the Board we interact with other alumni and friends of Western. Hopefully we can inspire them to become donors to Western in a way that fits with their circumstances and intentions. Perhaps we can make a difference in increasing the number of alumni who want to help change the trajectory of a deserving student’s life through their gift to Western.
It is hard not to be impressed with the breadth of resources and areas of study at Western Carolina today and I hope that the small part that Pam and I play in helping the school continues to advance it as one of the best in the nation and certainly in the UNC system. Dr. Belcher and his team are making tremendous progress at Western and I believe that the best is yet to come.
Q.) Bob, you’re also a very active alumni member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. How have you and your PIKE brothers maintained those lifelong friendships and relationships after all these years?
That’s easy – “Once a Pike always a Pike” as we say and we mean it. Brotherhood in Pi Kappa Alpha transcends time and place. I have met Pikes from other schools all over the world and we share a common bond in Pi Kappa Alpha and an instant connection. Plus, I think all Pikes can agree that the experience helped develop them as good men and contributing members of their community.
One of our mottos is “Pi Kappa Alpha - leaders, scholars, athletes” which suggests that our fraternity attracts students with a variety of abilities. I believe that you could say our chapter at Western has produced loyal and supportive Catamounts. Our Pi Kappa Alpha alumni association at WCU is very active and has received multiple years of recognition as the best in the nation from our national organization. We hold an annual meeting each summer during the Purple and Gold event and we meet in Cullowhee for Founders Day in February each year. We have over 700 Pi Kappa Alpha alumni from WCU since our chapter founding in 1967 and a surprising number of active alumni that support the university in various ways.
It is just part of who we are!
Q.) Bob, last March you retired as President/CEO of EIS Inc. What is occupying most of your time now?
Well, it has been 5 months now and I must say I really have enjoyed it so far. We have been traveling – a cruise in the Baltic to Scandinavia and to St. Petersburg, Russia took 15 days. We have been in Colorado to visit one of my sons and his wife. They are expecting in December. I have a son in Charlotte that is a Trauma Surgeon and our two grandchildren and daughter-in law are there. We bought a high rise condo in Southend Charlotte in April so we can visit comfortably and more often. We never lived in a downtown environment so we are finding that to be fun as we spend a week each month there. We also have a daughter in Atlanta and we spend a good bit of time with her and her boyfriend doing things in town.
In addition to having more family time, I can now play more golf when I want as well as get involved with Catholic Charities and Knights of Columbus at St. Brigid Catholic Church in Johns Creek, Georgia.
Finally, I have my work with the WCU Foundation Board and I’m just beginning to look for a business board position where I may add value with my experience.
Q.) Now tell us something unique and interesting about yourself that few people may know.
When I entered the Army, I scored very high in the ability to learn languages. That surprised me a little but I had taken Spanish in high school and German at Western Carolina and never found language very difficult to learn. I was offered the opportunity to be trained as a Prisoner of War Interrogator and that also required a foreign language capability. I studied Burmese for one year at the Defense Language Institute where selected military personnel and United States diplomats go to study language before being deployed overseas. Language school was seven hours per day, five days per week for fifty-two weeks. I graduated with a broad capability to speak and read the language. As most people understand, language skills atrophy if it is not use and unfortunately I have forgotten much of what I learned. However, when we were on a cruise earlier this year, one of the dining room staff was Burmese and she was shocked at my ability to speak even a few words in Burmese with her. My speaking ability is very rusty but it was fun to try and communicate with what I remembered.