And the 40-year-old Thomas also is comfortable in his role of directing Progressive AE, one of West Michigan’s most celebrated design firms.
Thomas was named president and CEO at Progressive last October, taking over the reins from Raymond Fix who held the post since 1992. Being chosen for that position was a good career move for Thomas, who has an engineering background.
Often good engineers, even those who get their degrees from highly regarded schools like McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, don’t get the opportunity to lead a prominent firm like Progressive unless fate somehow intervenes, as it did for Thomas.
Early in his career, Thomas had a chance to buy stock in the mid-sized Windsor, Ontario, firm where he was working, and he took it. Soon after making his investment, he began getting a view of his company that engineers usually don’t have. And little did he know then that his decision to buy into the firm would end up being the biggest career break he’d ever have.
“What it did for me was it brought me into an ownership role, going from an associate to sitting on the board of directors of an engineering firm all before the age of 30. It really exposed me to the business side of our profession,” he said.
“I remember at the time when I made this decision, I was very proud of it. I went home and told my wife and she was very happy — until we got our first paycheck. Because all of a sudden we had lost 30 percent of our take-home pay in order to purchase the equity. At that point, we were questioning whether that was such a great decision,” he added, smiling.
The decision did pay off, though, and rather handsomely, too, as Thomas was able to bring his family here in July 1999 when he arrived at Progressive. His trek to Grand Rapids started when the Windsor firm was acquired by a company in western Canada. Now all the firm’s decisions would be made on the other side of the country, and moving west would have taken the Thomases too far from their Ontario roots.
So he sold his shares and signed a non-compete agreement. The contract, however, didn’t prevent him from plying his trade in Michigan, where he was licensed and a member of the state engineering association. His in-laws were already living in Clarkston and the Thomas family made regular trips to see them, so Michigan became the logical place to go.
“I was looking for a firm that was privately held and about this size, with 100 to 200 employees. I found Progressive. We had conversations and the timing was good,” he said.
Thomas told the Business Journal that going to Progressive was a terrific match for his skills. He joined the firm as a division leader and did so under the best of circumstances.
“What really impressed me was they were looking to bring somebody in to that leadership role before there was a vacancy, in order to provide some overlap of six to eight months of working with the current leader, as opposed to waiting until there was a void and then try to fill it,” said Thomas, who also has earned an MBA from Michigan State University.
It was his father who first influenced Thomas to go into engineering. His dad was a civil engineer and a farmer. He was also known locally as an unofficial inventor of sorts and the type of guy who could make almost anything with a blowtorch and a welder.
But Thomas said what has kept him in the design profession is the incredible sense of accomplishment he gets each time the conceptual process he uses to solve a client’s problem actually comes to life.
“We can visualize a building and then we can draw it, but it’s still just black lines on white paper. But then when it goes out into construction, things begin to come to fruition. For me, it’s always been a sense of walking through your dreams because it’s something that only existed in your mind. And now here it is and you’re walking through it in reality.”
When Thomas is away from Progressive he likes to golf, ski the snowy slopes, and fix up the house, obviously having inherited some of those handyman traits from his father.
“I love home-remodeling type of projects. I’m one of these guys that will look at what it would cost to have someone else do it, then what it would cost for me to do it myself. I can often do it myself, and end up with a really cool tool at the end of the day, and save myself some money and enjoy it while I’m doing it,” he said.
But most of his free time is spent with Elizabeth, his wife, and their children, 15-year-old Sophie and 11-year-old Evan. Elizabeth stays busy with the kids, both at school and their extra-curricular activities.
Sophie is very active with the Forest Hills Central High School band. While she plays trumpet in the jazz band and francophone in the marching band, she also dabbles with the piano and guitar at home. Sophie has rowed crew, too.
Thomas said Evan is a real outdoorsy guy. He attends Goodwillie Environmental School in Ada and belongs to the Cub Scouts.
“My son and I have just gotten into building and flying radio-controlled airplanes. That has turned out to be a real riot for both of us. He absolutely loves it. And both the kids have been involved with Odyssey of the Mind,” said Thomas.
“Our theory is, if you can keep them busy, they don’t have time to get into trouble. The only downside is, that it keeps us busy keeping them busy,” he added with a laugh.
But busy can be good, both at home and at work. Thomas said the first four months at the helm of Progressive have been rewarding and fun.
“It’s been an exciting time. My interest has always been more toward the business side of what we do and, again, I think that comes from my early involvement in ownership. I’m in a role where I can take a lot of what I’ve learned and studied and put it into action,” he said.
As for the immediate future, Thomas sees even better days ahead for Progressive.
“Our economy has been a little sluggish, but it appears that it is picking up. We’re in a much better position this year at this time than we were last year,” he said. “So we’re guardedly optimistic and are just hoping that things will continue to move that way.”