R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. Marks 50 years in Iowa

May 1, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the Chronicle Times, Cherokee, Iowa, marking the 50th anniversary of R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. 

R.J. Thomas followed his lifelong dream to own his own business and manufacture his own designs when he founded R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. on May 1, 1959. 

The first building was built in June 1959, about 3 miles south of Cherokee, Iowa, to manufacture R.J.’s innovative invention, the Pulver Rooter with counter-rotating knives, which simultaneously cultivated and plowed corn and cotton fields. Later an insecticide bander was developed which proved very popular. Custom design work eventually led Thomas Mfg. into the park equipment business. 

In the early 1960s, John Gilchrist of the Cherokee County Conservation Board approached Thomas about designing and building grills for the newly developed Martin’s Access County Park. Thomas and Gilchrist worked together to evolve a satisfactory grill design. The new grill proved to be durable, useful and popular with picnickers and campers. If a park wanted a grill, then of course, it also needed a picnic table. Or maybe a bench. And so the product line began to expand from customer demand. 

By the mid 1970s the company made the decision to make park equipment its predominant product line and agriculture products were discontinued. Today, the company is nationally and internationally recognized for its Pilot Rock brand park, streetscape and campsite products. 

Family Business Thrives 

As with all small, growing family businesses, the family has been an integral part of the labor pool. Supporting R.J. in all endeavors, wife Doris handled the sales, finances and the office. She even became the first traveling salesperson for the company, covering the Midwest calling on park commissioners and exhibiting at trade shows in an era when that was unusual for a woman. Her confident, friendly demeanor won over the customers and sales grew. The family includes two daughters and two sons, each working alongside their parents as they and the business grew. Daughters Cheryl and Linda, as teenagers, assisted making mailing lists, preparing mailers, sorting bolts and helping in anyway they could. Sons Craig and Steve became involved from childhood working side by side with their father throughout their teen years, returning to the business after college and eventually taking charge. Craig, the eldest son, educated as an engineer, took on the jobs of manufacturing, research, product design, productivity and building expansion. Steve, with a business degree, took on finances, human resources, sales and public relations. It was this balance of interests, talents, and education between Craig and Steve recognized by R.J. and Doris that made R.J. confident to eventually step aside. 

Today, R.J. and Doris are deceased. Steve and Craig manage the daily operations of the business. Linda and Cheryl live in other states with their families, but remain actively involved as owners and board members … and as friends to many employees. 

Origin of Pilot Rock 

A common question is, “How did R.J. Thomas come up with the brand name “Pilot Rock” for his grills and tables?” Geography had much to do with it. Across the highway from where Thomas built his first factory is a huge glacial rock the size of several houses. Whether traveling by river or over land, the early native Indians and then the pioneers used the rock as a landmark to navigate by, so it became known as “Pilot Rock.” Today it is still a local landmark and the object to view from a rest area along U.S. Highway 59. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, Craig began to modernize and automate the company’s physical plant and production facilities. This ongoing program continues today. As the demand for its park equipment grew, the company required different and newer steel processing and handling machinery. And as R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. becomes an ever larger player in the site equipment industry, the updated production facilities help keep it competitive and increase production capacity. 

Constant Expansion 

The physical facilities of the company have been expanded and enlarged nine times since 1980. The company made a commitment to automate the welding, production and painting operations wherever possible. That decision initiated what has become a regular process of evaluating the manufacturing facilities and incorporating upgrades when needed — from physical plant to machinery to layout to software. Additional expansions are planned for 2009 and 2010. 

The company employs a growing staff of robot welders and computer controlled machinery of various descriptions. The growth and automation is leading to a regular effort to streamline workflow throughout the plant. Which often leads to more expansion and modernization … and the process repeats itself. 

The Pilot Rock line includes seven basic product categories: charcoal grills, campfire rings, picnic tables, benches, trash and recycling receptacles, bike racks, and site amenities. These 7 basic categories explode into literally thousands of possible product permutations. In 1995 the company’s catalog was 36 pages long. Today’s catalog is 80 pages. And the next catalog will be larger still as the company introduces almost a dozen new products in 2009. 

Campground Business 

As the product line expands, the customer base grows, too. Or is it the other way around (this is a chicken or egg dilemma)? For years the traditional customer was the government park system at the township, city, county, state and federal levels. This base has grown to include privately owned campgrounds and RV parks, plus schools and colleges, commercial customers, landscape architects, golf courses, churches and recreation facilities. Even the private residential homeowner is becoming a customer since the company built its website 14 years ago. 

While the product line may not seem to be very “high tech,” Pilot Rock grills and picnic tables are marketed and manufactured using “high tech” methods. Today, the company holds eight patents on its products and designs. The company and its staff work hard every day to maintain its competitive advantages and the superior reputation of Pilot Rock park equipment. The company’s motto is: This company wouldn’t be anything without its people – a tribute to the many long-term employees who see the value and pride in the Pilot Rock reputation. 

The company continues to grow. Today it employs 60 people. It is proud of its 50-year track record of continuous employment, never having a layoff. Over half the crew has been here for over 15 years. Thirteen members of the staff have worked with the Thomas family for over 20 years. And in January, 2009, Tom Riedemann was recognized at a companywide surprise party for reaching the 35-year milestone. There are also two second-generation men working here — the sons working with Steve and Craig, whose father worked with R.J. in the early years. 

Company Civic Minded 

R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. Inc. has always been a strong supporter of the local community as a way to give back to the towns where the employees live, and to the organizations to which they belong. The company donates regularly to academic programs in the area school systems, to local volunteer fire departments, county conservation programs, and other worthy causes. It gave generously to a campaign to build a local community college campus and conference center, to the expansion of the Cherokee public library, and to build the new Bacon Aquatic Center. It also supports the local area economic development efforts as being essential to the progress of the people and businesses of Cherokee County. Every eight weeks the Siouxland Blood Bank bloodmobile arrives and employees are encouraged to donate — on company time. 

The company also encourages its employees to get involved in their local communities. A few of the “after hours” hats worn by company staff include: a Cherokee County supervisor, city council members, the 2008 Citizen of The Year, a chamber of commerce president, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, volunteer firemen, Guard and Reserve servicemen, and numerous other church and civic organization committee members. 

Extended ‘Family’ Business 

And in that generous spirit Bob, known as “R.J.” to all employees, and Doris Thomas took every opportunity to stress the importance of family and personally treated all employees as “extended family.” They always showed a genuine interest in, and concern for, everyone’s well-being. The second generation Thomas family continues to express this attitude and spirit today. To R.J. and Doris, family came first, and it was important for them and the company to promote and participate in employee activities and events to foster that “family bond.” 

For decades the company has regularly sponsored annual picnics and barbecues where employees and families enjoy the outdoors, great food (cooked on a Pilot Rock grill), softball games and swimming. At holiday time, the annual Christmas party includes performances by talented employees, often highlighted by a unique song composed to commemorate a special event in a co-worker’s life. Other winter activities include bowling parties, tree decorating and participation in the annual Chamber Christmas parade – all to encourage a spirit of fun and camaraderie within the staff at R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. 

The company is a regular entrant in the annual Christmas Parade with a float designed and built solely by employees. You should have seen the Company’s 2004 entry, “Santa’s Modern Workshop,” complete with an operational and animated robot welder, staffed with familiar looking “elves,” all working to the Styx tune Mr. Roboto. It filled two flat racks. What a sight! And it won first place! 

To come full circle, in 2008, the Thomas family, on behalf of the business and its employees, made a large financial contribution to the Cherokee County Conservation Board so it could complete the acquisition of some land to expand the Martin’s Access County Park area. Almost 50 years later this park continues to be very popular and the demand for recreational areas continues to grow, R.J. Thomas Mfg. Co. and its Pilot Rock brand of products will grow with it. There are always new and innovative products on the CAD “drawing board.”


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