Chairman Jim Nystrom had no doubts about his choice to be CEO of Nystrom, the building products manufacturer started by his late father in 1948, when the top job opened in 2013.
He chose Sue Thomas, the chief financial officer who had joined the company in 1990 as an accountant out of the University of Illinois.
Thomas had moved home to Mankato after graduation. She was cleaning houses to make cash and applied for a job at then 25-employee Nystrom that she spotted in the Star Tribune.
Thomas quickly learned the manufacturing business by spending lots of time on the shop floor. She was CFO by the mid-1990s and also earned a law degree in night school.
Jim Nystrom, 79, a legal-aid and criminal defense lawyer in San Diego following service in the Navy and law school, always was impressed with the analytical skills of Thomas as she took on increasing responsibility at the company. He was even more impressed with her ability to listen to employees, assess situations and lead people in a collaborative manner. She’s also not shy about making well-informed decisions.
“She’s fulfilled that CEO role in so many positive ways,” said Nystrom, who splits time between San Diego and the Twin Cities. “She’s low-keyed, but as smart as they come. She’s also very fair and generous with her time. That appealed to me.
“Our people like her. When equipment breaks down she’s on the floor to help figure it out. She has high expectations. She’s exceptional.”
Thomas, 51, doesn’t laud herself. But the results at the Brooklyn Park company, which has operations across the U.S., speak for themselves.
Nystrom has grown from 25 to 230 employees since Thomas joined the company, partly thanks to a change in the go-to-market strategy credited to Jim Nystrom. Sales have grown from $2 million to more than $50 million this year. The company has grown profitably by 70% since Thomas was named chief executive, which also corresponded with a commercial-building boom.
And Thomas this month will christen a $5.5 million expansion next door to its flagship facility, allowing it to bring to its expanded campus about 40 workers who labored in a leased facility several miles away to what is now a 100,000-plus-square-foot Nystrom campus that is more efficient, productive and with room for additional growth.
Not bad for a one-time staff accountant who toyed with the idea of joining a law firm after Jim Nystrom encouraged her to intern with a local law firm on a part-time basis for several months to figure it out.
“It was not nearly as exciting as working at Nystrom,” Thomas said. “I was admitted to the bar, but I never practiced. The legal background was good though. I became the gateway for ‘Do we need to spend money for a lawyer on this contract or other issue?’ ”
Thomas also said she wouldn’t have remained at Nystrom if not for the encouraging style of Jim Nystrom and the support of the employees.
“My purpose is to make Nystrom a great place to work,” Thomas said. “Our workers are so critical to our success. Our culture really helps once we get them in here. I have to bring the passion and purpose to the employees.
“Jim doesn’t have any children. He considers this business his family.”
Nystrom makes commercial building products, such as access panels, for electrical and plumbing equipment, and rooftop hatches, mostly for the U.S. construction industry.
The wages for production employees start about $15 per hour and range to $30 an hour, plus benefits and a profit-sharing pool that is shared equally among managers and workers and which can amount to several thousand bucks annually.
“I started as a second-shift welder,” said Corey Johnson, 35, a 13-year veteran who joined the company after learning to weld at Dakota County Technical Institute. He’s been promoted several times and now works as a programmer on computerized equipment.
“The culture at Nystrom is awesome,” Johnson said. “The pay is competitive, and that profit-sharing bonus is a big incentive.
“And Sue does monthly meetings with us, shares the numbers and we talk about where we can improve and what to expect. She stops by regularly. She’s a big-time listener.”
A favorite plant visit from Thomas includes when she pushes around an ice-cream cart.
Thomas said the plant expansion was the idea of Jim Nystrom and was fully supported by employees, thanks to several years of profitable, 10%-annualized sales growth.
“We’ve made a significant investment,” Thomas said. “Everybody is on this campus. We split our leadership team between the two buildings. I’m in both buildings every day.”
Jim Nystrom, the sole owner of the business, has established a trust into which the business will be placed.
Nystrom, who already provides a portion of his profits to a variety of charities, also has established a foundation that will formalize things.
And Nystrom is considering selling the company to its management and employees through a stock-ownership plan. He’s confident the right team is in place to weather the future.
“Our employees really like working with Sue because she is so straightforward and honest,” Nystrom said. “She leads by example and wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that she wasn’t willing to do it herself.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.