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TITANS OF INDUSTRY


three or fours years of diffi cult times, trying to get the thing up and running. Essentially, we severely underestimated what it took to do what we had to do. But we eventually got out of it, and since then we’ve done pretty well,” laughs Theisen. The facility has grown into a 140,000-acre campus. “When we moved to South Carolina we became the largest employer in a small town. We get involved in local charities as well. It has brought about a lot of loyalty,” says Theisen.


The move also improved aspects of the business that Theisen admits needed work. “We got better at delivery and quality control. It made us a stronger, better company. We just continued to improve our sales and in the process got bigger.” The Theisen family decided to bring their export department in- house between 1979-80, travelling overseas and attending trade shows, setting up contacts, meeting customers and hiring reps to boost the international business. But familial tension was looming again. “We were coming out of the [near] bankruptcy phase between 1981-83, so there was a great deal of relief that we were going to survive,” says Theisen. “I had been in charge of fi nances and my brother, who had joined the business, wanted to get into that, so I offered to go into the sales side. We started growing again, but we had another family crisis. My father wanted to step back in the late 1980s and there were issues between myself and my brother about who was going to take over.”


Passing over the baton When George Theisen did retire in 1992, Claude was made president, and his brother quit the fi rm. While the company continued to do well despite ongoing family issues the


“We took our eye off the ball and we gave the competition an opportunity. So we had to change the paradigm of the business”


Theisens “had to sort through”, including a debate about selling the business, competition had begun to hurt their sales in the mid 1990s. “We took our eye off the ball and we gave the competition an opportunity. So we had to change the paradigm of the business,” he says.


That paradigm shift resulted in a new trading company being established in Shanghai (see sidebar on page 38), where parts were bought and assembled for the fi rst time outside the US. “We were candid with our employees in South Carolina,” says Theisen. “There was concern we were going to move all the jobs, but we weren’t going to do that. We made it clear that without the ability to be more competitive, we would not survive as a large company.” For Fox, forging strong links with the dealership community has helped sales signifi cantly. “You partner with them. As they grow they continue to help us grow and vice versa. As long as they keep their model healthy, and we keep healthy, it’s mutually benefi cial.” T&S Brass’s business has grown every year since Claude Theisen joined the business in 1972, aside from when the company moved south. There was also a decline in sales following the worldwide fi nancial crisis seven years ago. “What happened in 2008, 2009 was a major calamity. There was a lot of nervousness. We had declining sales. We got them back on course, >


Learning the ropes Eva-Marie Fox


“Claude and the family were raised in New York and moved to South Carolina when they were adults, whereas I moved to South Carolina as a teenager. When I fi nished college, the last place I wanted to be was in Travelers Rest so I got a job in New York and ended up being a buyer in a retail business. I loved that world. “My father had been asking me,


‘Did you think about going into the business?’ but, as you can imagine for a girl in her 20s working in fashion showrooms in Manhattan every day I said: ‘There’s no way I’m moving back to South Carolina.’ “Things went from boom


to bust in Manhattan very quickly. My father said to me, ‘Why don’t you just give it a try’? My husband and I were determined we were going to move south,


give it one year, then go back to


New York. That was 24 years ago. I had lived in South Carolina while I was at high school and my summer job was working at the plant, so I knew it and enjoyed the people. So when I started back down there it felt right. We never looked back. “One of my fi rst jobs was meeting dealers in the Philadelphia area. Our rep warned me: ‘This one guy is really not nice.’ We walked in the door and this guy said: ‘What the F are you doing here? Get the F out of this place!’ He started throwing things at us. The rep said, ‘This is George’s daughter.’ This guy looks at me and said: ‘Well, you can come in. I remember your Dad.’ I thought: ‘This is pretty interesting’.”


“My summer job was working at the plant. I enjoyed the people. So when I started back down there it felt right”


37


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