Our December Member of the Month is Neville Orsmond, the CEO of Thomas & Thomas. Here’s what Neville had to say about business, fishing, and AFFTA membership:
Why Thomas & Thomas?
I grew up in South Africa, loving the outdoors. My dad had a group of university friends who were all hardcore bachelor-sportsmen. From the time I was eight years old, they would take me fly fishing and hunting. That’s all they cared about—fly rods, shotguns and Land Rovers. I was their lackey on the trips and they would tell stories of tiger fish in Tanzania, of GTs off the east coast of Mozambique. They lived for the wild and emphasized wildlife conservation.
When I was 18, my dad sent me to Napa, California for two years to study winemaking and shovel tanks. I fly fished some there, but it was tough because I didn’t have the money to get out much. I returned to South Africa for university. I was living in Port Elizabeth and surfed and fished for trout in small streams around there, or headed to Zimbabwe for tiger fish.
I started working for a company that installs automated parking systems, mainly in New York City. They sent me to New York. Every free moment, I was fly fishing. There was amazing access locally and with flights—from the East and West Branches of the Delaware River to the Bahamas. It was an exciting time. But I didn’t have a connection to my work.
My garage was filled with T&T fly rods. I loved the rods and what they stood for. There was so much tradition and heart in the company. Everyone thought I was nuts when I wanted to buy it, except my wife, Catherine. She said, “Yeah, you do have about half the garage filled with rods. This will be the best thing you ever do.”
It took me nearly eight months to purchase the company, but it finally happened in 2014. I drove up to Greenfield every day and stayed in a motel for a year. Finally, I moved Catherine and our twin two year-old daughters up here. It’s without a doubt one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
What are the origins of Thomas & Thomas, and how is the company growing and developing?
Thomas & Thomas was established in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1969 by legendary rod builders Tom Dorsey and Tom Maxwell. Since then, our mission’s never changed: to pursue innovation, superior quality and uncompromising performance in the creation of the world’s finest handcrafted fly rods. It’s this fixed purpose that first attracted me to the company.
We toe a fine line between the traditions of the past while confidently refining rod technology.
With master rod maker Tom Dorsey on board, we forged a collaboration. When I first acquired the company, I spent a lot of time just learning and understanding the production side, getting out on the floor at 7 AM every morning. It took quite a bit of time to really understand and identify what we wanted to invest into a rod. The company had fallen off the bus a bit with technology and machinery and that all had to be upgraded, an enormous undertaking.
We really had to work to get our name back out there, to get people to really understand who we are as a company and how we’re charting the future. T&T had everything. It was just a matter of showing anglers who we were, what we can do and how we can do it. It was awesome attending the first shows and getting face time with our customers.
We’ve got an incredible team that’s labored to get the name back in the game. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re on track. With the new rods, it’s just unbelievable. The feedback’s been amazing and everyone’s excited to cast them, bring them back into the shops and believe in us.
What excites you the most about T&T’s future?
I’m excited to build up, from human, natural resources and technological perspectives. During the time that I’ve worked with the team, it’s been amazing to see our employees come to really believe in themselves and what they’re doing.
The difference we can make as a company to preserve natural resources and make people aware excites me. We have a gateway through which to get people outside, to get them to teach their kids, to connect with the natural world.
Upholding and growing deeper into the company mission, doing whatever we can to produce the finest rods and get people to request them, that excites me.
I always have to challenge myself and this is an awesome challenge. This is everything I love—nature, fly fishing, people.
How has AFFTA membership benefitted you?
It’s benefited us tremendously. Especially through IFTD and the Dealer Summit. They bring the dealers and manufacturers together on a single platform where we can speak to each other as friends and business partners. They’ve put me I touch with all the right people and given me lots of advice and straight-up answers on how to approach certain challenges.
AFFTA puts our name and what we’re doing out there. They’ve always got a radar up on who is doing what in the fly fishing industry. Their Market analytics are tremendously useful.
They’ve also helped us focus on issues critical to anglers, such as supporting public lands and other major conservation issues. If it weren’t for AFFTA, everyone would be sitting on their own islands, not talking.
What’s one thing you wish AFFTA members knew about your business?
We’re a very open company. We want people to come visit us and tour the factory in Massachusetts. We want customers, dealers and retailers to see and understand what we’re doing, which is 100% Made in the USA–everything from the rod tube to the sock. We run off the constructive criticism that AFFTA Members, dealers, or customers give us. We’re very customer service-based in all we do.
When you’re not in the office, what are you most likely to be found doing?
As you can guess, I fish quite a bit. More interestingly, every year our family does a family trip with Yellow Dog Fly Fishing. This year we’re going to Belize. We take the kids and make it fun for them in a fly fishing environment—a kids’ fishing derby, treasure hunts, making sand castles. I take the family to South Africa every September. Our family has a place next to Kruger National Park. We listen to lions roar and hyenas being sneaky around the fire. And during the day, we watch elephants play in the river.
Daily, I take my kids for lots of walks in the woods. I tie flies. And I love to drink beers and wine and sit around the fire.