Like many building material retailers and lumberyards located in smaller communities, Sequim, Wash.–based Thomas Building Center has had to deal with the arrival of The Home Depot and Wal-Mart, and the corresponding inevitable vacuum of a certain portion of consumer dollars from the cash register. In Sequim, the loss was even more acute due to the pro dealer's reliance on retail revenues to fund a vast array of neighborhood outreach projects that have helped to define the company as a community icon since owner Rand Thomas and his father first opened their doors in 1972. Ever the nimble local supplier, and with some 35 years of public service experience behind it, the company has found a way—at least in this case—to overcome the effect of the big boxes, and it involves 40,000 rubber ducks floating down a paper mill canal in nearby Port Angeles, Wash.
Held annually since 1989, the Great Olympic Peninsula Duck Derby (one of 200 similar fundraising derbies held internationally each year) raised more than $1 million last year for regional charities including the Olympic Memorial Hospital Foundation, the Sequim Radiation Oncology Center, and the Sequim Boys & Girls Club, all of which are personal public service projects for Thomas. By working upstream with his vendors to obtain pledges for the event, Thomas was able to surpass the company's previous year contributions and commit nearly $8,000 for 31 “very important ducks” (VIDs) at $250 a pop. Thomas led by example and bought several ducks on behalf of Thomas Building Center, adjusted some co-op advertising contributions, and also lightly cajoled his personal industry contacts to purchase one of the ducks, which were raced down the canal with prizes awarded to the top finishers.
Participation in the Duck Derby is just one example of Thomas' successful public service strategies that seek to include business, industry, and community in group efforts that enable Thomas Building Center to continue to succeed on its stated mission of contributing more to the community year over year. The dealer includes improving annual community service as part of a mission statement posted on the company Web site.
This year, the company is on pace to best last year's contribution total of $82,148.62 that was donated to 51 charities, including everything from the Old Time Fiddlers to the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Sequim Rotary Club, another of Thomas' favorite charitable organizations.
In fact, it was as president of the Rotary Club in 1981 when Thomas first came face to face with how the power of public service can significantly impact the community, when he and other local business leaders teamed up to build Sequim's first public library. “I had always known that self-devotion was important,” he says. “I watched my parents give up everything they had and commit their lives to the church. They even bought a church when one wasn't available. For them it was religion, and for me it has been the community. So when Sequim began asking for a library, I made a commitment as president of Rotary that one would be provided and that we would be the instigating group.”
Group Approach In what would become his trademark public service style, Thomas reached into every corner of his life during the library project, not only for assistance, but to see how others could benefit from the venture. Rotary donated seed money and Thomas Building Center donated materials while the local high school's construction class gained some on-the-job experience by framing out the building. Contractor customers were enlisted to finish out the structure, and the town of Sequim suddenly had a brand new library.
“The library was probably when I first realized that if you take a lead role in giving, then others around you will give of themselves as well,” says Thomas, explaining that, for him, public service most often means initiating action among a collection of people and rallying them behind a common cause. “That's a slot that I just have fit into well,” he says. “I don't want to be the guy out front shaking hands or making speeches. I like to be the salesman of a project, but ultimately I think things are accomplished by the group.”