My toughest challenge: Newton Thomas
Company: The Newtron Group
What they do: Headquartered in Baton Rouge, The Newtron Group is one of the largest privately owned specialty industrial construction companies in the country and is among the nation’s leading industrial electrical and instrumentation providers.
Career: Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from LSU in 1967. He began his career as a project estimator with Southern Instruments and eventually served a two-year term as president. He left Southern Instruments to start Newtron, a union instrumentation contractor, in 1973. The Newtron Group was formed in 1983 as the parent company of Newtron Inc. and Triad Electric & Controls Inc.
Thomas pays up to 60% of his company’s pre-tax earnings to his employees. The rank and file is compensated first and always get their bonuses, no matter how well the company performs, while top management at the company is compensated last. When he began planning for the future of his estate, Thomas wanted to make sure the company would continue to place the same value on its employees after he was gone. But how? If the company was sold, the new owners probably would want a bigger share of the earnings. An employee stock ownership plan didn’t seem feasible either, in part because Thomas feared that future nonowner employees might not be treated fairly. “How do you get off the tiger, and not feel like you’ve compromised the principles and values you’ve espoused?” he says. “There were no models.”
In his will, Thomas donates the company to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The company will be overseen by a board that, beyond the traditional mission of making sure the business remains profitable, is also charged with seeing that it stays true to the core values Thomas has established. When making that determination, the board will rely on an annual survey of longtime employees. “It is kind of the holy grail of the company,” Thomas says. “The charter of that foundation board is to look at the results and affirm that the company is getting high scores from its employees and is living by the values I’ve espoused.” From 40% to 60% of earnings each year will go to employee bonuses, and 4% to 6% will be given to charitable causes.
It will be impossible to truly know whether the system is working until after Thomas has passed away. But since putting the plan in motion more than a dozen years ago, he likes what he’s seen so far. The board isn’t making decisions yet, but they’re learning how the company works. Employee satisfaction is high, and the company is more financially successful than ever, Thomas says. The employees realize the system is in place for their benefit, he says, and they’re working hard to reward his faith. “I am convinced it will work beyond my life span,” Thomas says. “I’m trying to create a model that will survive me.”
This article was originally published in the fourth quarter 2017 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at 1012industryreport.com.