originally published in Business Pulse magazine March 2017—
Innovation and caring
The directions Doug Thomas has taken Bellingham Cold Storage
By Sherri Huleatt
Founded by Archibald Talbot in 1946, Bellingham Cold Storage (BCS) got its start as a single warehouse and icehouse. Today, BCS is the largest portside cold storage facility on the West Coast—spanning more than 80 acres across two facilities and employing 175, all of whom live in Whatcom County.
Over the last 70 years BCS has grown into a full-service facility that handles more than 2 billion pounds of frozen and chilled food every year. They’ve expanded their original facility from 30,000 square feet to more than 1 million square feet, and their facilities include 12 on-site food processing customers and 16 cold storage warehouses, with a capacity of 120 million pounds.
And last year BCS experienced one of their best-performing years yet—in large part attributable to the leadership of Doug Thomas, its president and CEO.
Thomas joined the BCS team in 1992 as vice president and chief operating officer, and just seven years later took over for his father—Stew Thomas—and became a second-generation president/CEO.
According to Gene Knutson, a Bellingham City Councilman and 42-year veteran at BCS, Thomas had “tough shoes to fill….Doug picked up the torch and has led us to a bright future. Over my 42 years with the company I’ve been blessed to work with great people, and Doug is one of the best. He’s not only a great leader, but a great human being.”
Knutson referred to personal situations as illustrative of Thomas’s personal-touch methods. “I have had several back surgeries, and every time I’ve been in the hospital one of the first people to visit me were Doug and (his wife) Sandy. He does that with all our employees, no matter what their title.”
Thomas has spearheaded some unique and effective corporate culture initiatives that helped BCS earn the title of “Premier Employer” by the Northwest Food Processors Association in 2014.
For example, this year BCS will kick off a new “Charity House” home-buying incentive program that encourages employee home ownership. Later this year the company will complete construction of a state-of-the-art employee Training and Technology Center that seats 200. BCS is building a new employee lunch room, locker rooms, offices, food safety, and engineering offices.
Thomas also helped increase company efficiencies about 55 percent by establishing “Balanced Scorecard” key performance indicators.
According to Thomas, the most significant improvement over the last few years has been BCS’s MiCare Clinic—a free health clinic for employees and their families. “This was a major leap for us, and it’s paid off in two significant ways,” Thomas said. “Our employees now have a primary care physician, if they didn’t have one before, and it’s free of charge to them if they decide to utilize the clinic for a number of general practitioner services and most non-narcotic prescription pharmacy needs.
“This resulted in a significant cost savings for our valued employees and their families, while also producing savings to the company.”
The BCS MiCare Clinic has helped foster happier employees and families, lowered employee turnover, and created more efficient and cost-effective medical care for the entire BCS family, Thomas said.
Community philanthropy has always been baked into the BCS culture. It donates to more than 70 charities a year, with a special focus on youth charities. “Our primary focus has always been ‘kids first,” Thomas said. Whether it’s the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, YMCA, FFA, and several others, BCS under Thomas’s guiding principles considers it best to invest in kids while they’re young, instead of trying to catch up to them as young adults who might have suffered from not getting enough attention or engagement as kids.
According to Knutson, Thomas is involved throughout the city, county, state, and nation. “He is a champion for all businesses,” Knutson said. “I have seen him grow into a true leader, not only here at BCS but throughout the community.” A primary example of that is Thomas’s involvement for five years on the board of directors since the inception of the Whatcom Business Alliance, and spearheading its business advocacy mission. He’s active in Port of Bellingham and Port Commissioners business, issues in the state legislature, and he travels extensively on behalf of his industry’s policy-making organizations.
Thomas credits much of his success to surrounding himself with good people. “They’re not necessarily the rocket scientists, but just really good people who have become very skilled, supportive, and outstanding leaders,” Thomas said. “And then there’s the philosophy that my dad gave me that the harder and smarter you work, the luckier you tend to be. Be thoughtful and kind, and put things back in better shape than you found them. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ make friends, and smile a lot.”
Thomas gives much credit to his wife, Sandy – considering her as his “biggest supporter” – his parents, Washington State University (his alma mater), and the Talbot family for leading and growing BCS.