Doug Thomas is the President and CEO of Bellingham Cold Storage, a full-service public refrigerated warehousing company on the Bellingham waterfront. Founded in 1946 by Archibald Talbot, Bellingham Cold Storage is the largest portside cold storage on the West Coast, and serves customers around the world.
How did you get to Bellingham?
My dad managed a cold storage manager of a facility in Burlington, WA. I worked in the warehouses in the summers for my dad; sweeping flooring, lumping trucks, shoveling ice, driving forklifts. After I graduated high school I wanted to go off on my own. I didn’t want anyone to think I got a job because I was the boss’ son.
I went to school to become a stockbroker, in 1987—the year the market crashed. I passed my securities exam, then couldn’t find a job for eight or nine months. I ended up working in a gravel pit in Skagit County driving off-road dump trucks. I’d go to work around 5:30 am, get off at 2:30 pm, go home, get my suit and tie on, and drive to Seattle as fast as I could. I’d visit different brokerage houses, but no one was hiring—in fact, many of them had just laid off a bunch of people.
I thought I should spread my net a little wider, so I called a job placement service. In one week I had four different job offers. All at once.
I went to work for Allstate, partly because they offered a salary. That was attractive given the economy. I moved to Seattle, and worked there for two years. I started Allstate’s accelerated management training program, and got sent to Chicago.
We had our daughter in 1992. That’s when both sets of grandparents said it was time to come back—they couldn’t have their granddaughter grow up 3,000 miles away from home. I started trying to figure out how to come back. The economy had recovered a bit by then.
Jack Wagner was the CEO of Talbot Investment Company, the predecessor of both Barkley and BCS, before they split into separate entities. He was effectively my dad’s boss back then; my dad had my role before me. My dad told Jack I didn’t want to work for him, because I didn’t want anyone thinking that’s why I got the job. Jack told my dad, “Sometimes in life, that’s just how it is—if he isn’t good, we’ll fire him.”
I started at the bottom. I wanted to relearn the business from the bottom up. I worked on the docks and drove forklifts for about a year. Then I worked on special projects, and within a year and a half, I was promoted to Vice President of Operations and in January of 1999, I took over as CEO. They haven’t fired me yet.
What’s your favorite spot in Bellingham?
Outside. I like to fish, a lot, so I like to be out on the boat or on a river. We have awesome opportunities for all of that.
Where do you take your boat from here?
Roche Harbor, anywhere in the San Juans, or the Canadian San Juans.
What would your perfect Bellingham weekend consist of?
My wife and I would probably get up early, go for a run, then go have breakfast—either the country club or some little cafe. We like to drive up to Mount Baker, chill out, or go fishing.
Or watch the Cougs. We usually get together with friends to watch Cougs games or Seahawks games. That is, if we’re not at the Cougs game—we have season tickets.
What do you like best about your job?
I make a habit of going around and catching people doing a great job. I like to recognize them. Before we open every meeting, we start with safety items, then we ask if anyone is knocking it out of the park. I don’t care what kind of meeting, it gives everyone in the room an opportunity to hear about somebody that’s really doing a great job.
I’ve asked everyone on the leadership team to recognize that person next time they see them. It’s my favorite thing to do. I love going up to them, and letting them know that people think they’re doing a great job, and it isn’t going unnoticed.
What do people not understand about Bellingham Cold Storage?
I always tell my banker this: the cold storage industry today, with all the food safety issues and all the thousands of items, is way more complicated and sophisticated than it used to be. It’s a serious business—it’s the food supply all across the world. The world’s food supply has to be safe, clean, neat, and tidy.
Is there something new that you’d like to see in Bellingham?
My wife and I are always looking for a restaurant with a fireplace, especially this time of year. We like a nice, warm place to go and have comfort food.
From a business standpoint, the one thing we’d like to see in Bellingham that we’ve been pushing for a number of years is a small, container barge operation. We are the first port out of Alaska, and there is a tremendous amount of commerce that comes into the lower 48. We’re a perfect partner city, if you will. We’re thought of by southeast Alaska as a similar burrough. We’re the closest thing, they think of Bellingham as a sister city.
We’re currently running thousands and thousands of container trucks up and down the I-5 corridor to and from Bellingham. We all drive by them every day on the I-5 corridor. I mean thousands; 30, 40, 50 thousand containers a year. That’s business we could have right here in Bellingham. We could sell cars, tractors, fertilizer, appliances, household goods, clothing, you name it. That business is being taken by Fife and Tukwila.
We’re working on this, probably since I arrived, but more robustly in the last 15 years. It’s a project. It’d be great for the environment—you’re pulling all those containers with one tug boat versus 220 trucks. That’s pretty efficient.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you want to call out?
I like It’s Your Ship by D. Michael Abrashoff. It’s a great leadership book; I keep several copies at my desk to give away. My dad was in the Navy, so it resonates with me.
Do you have a favorite spot downtown?
We like to go to Taco Lobo. That’s probably our favorite restaurant in town.
What are people always surprised to learn about you?
Once in awhile, I get a chance to hop on a forklift. If people haven’t been around me much, they’re surprised to see I can do that.
[Laughs] I’m an A to B driver, I’m told to take that and put it over there. I’m not a high stacker anymore.
I still know how to shovel ice and sweep floors, and I don’t hesitate to do that. I like for our place to be really clean, neat, and tidy. I’m a neat freak like that—it’s a food place, we have to keep it spotless. My favorite employees are our janitorial staff. They are one of the most important crews we have, they’re our first impression.
If you could go to Western now, and study whatever you wanted, what would it be?
Probably international business. We’ve traveled all over the world. I love people from all different walks of life, cultures, and countries. It’s been a real joy serving on a couple of international boards for about 15 years now, and having friends all over the world.
International business would be really interesting. There’s a lot of opportunity there in both up and down markets.
Do you have a country in particular you like to visit?
We enjoyed Australia, the people there were fabulous. We have good friends in the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Spain, and Prague. We really liked Prague, and Ireland, at certain times of the year. We’ve had great trips, and met great friends.
To what do you attribute the success of BCS over the last few years?
We’ve had very wise owners in the Talbot family. They’ve let us run the company the way it needs to be run to be long-term, sustainable, and successful. They’ve been very supportive of us being supportive of our employees, and creating a great work environment for them. They’ve been generous both financially and latitude-wise.
And, we’ve had a great history of really solid, loyal, professional employees. We have a 17.5-year average tenure, including what I call the “one-weekend wonders” who decide they want to unload halibut boats and then after a weekend, change their minds. We have to average those “one-weekend wonders” into the 45 and 51-year-service employees. 17.5 years is a pretty good track record.
We’ve done everything we can to increase the sticky factor with our customers and our employees. The employees are really first, and the customers are a close second. If you don’t take care of your employees, you don’t have anyone to take care of the customers. I’m a firm believer in that.