I want to share a personal story that shaped my views about why a clear mission is a critical asset to any business and which was fundamental to my decision to join City Light Capital.
The events of September 11, 2001 had a profound effect upon me and strengthened my belief that mission-based businesses can generate financial returns and social impact without trade-offs — and in fact can be better investments. Recall that it was a difficult time for our country, with great concern that another terrorist attack was imminent. The economy came to a standstill. At the Viking Group, a global leader in fire protection systems, in addition to our concerns about the people impacted by the attacks, we were immediately very worried that construction of new buildings in the USA would slow dramatically.
Just a few days after the attacks, the television news show “Good Morning America with Charles Gibson” aired a remarkable story about a man who was in the Pentagon when the airplane crashed into it. He told about how there was an explosion, then heat, smoke and flames that forced him to crawl into a small closet, where he was trapped. At what seemed like his last moment on earth, a fire sprinkler activated above him, dousing the flames and saving his life.
Our marketing people quickly discovered that the Pentagon was in the process of being retrofitted with fire sprinklers and that the attack had struck in the portion where construction was complete. They learned that our fire sprinkler products had been shipped to the job site only months before from our factory in Hastings, Michigan. We told our employees, and the place went nuts! Though business was terrible, a feeling of confidence and patriotism took hold in the factory. A huge American flag was hoisted to the rafters of the plant for all to see. An employee called a local television station. One of our production people, being interviewed by a reporter, remarked on how much she loved her job. Not only did she say that the pay and benefits were good, but that each day at work she felt proud to be responsible for making products that protect lives. “I feel like a firefighter myself” she said.
While our company did go through a tough year, we proceeded to double our sales over the next five years in part because of the productivity of our workforce and the clear safety benefits of our products demonstrated that day. We started up two more plants in Michigan. Today we export products produced there to points all over the world, following the global expansion of the fire sprinkler concept as the best way to protect lives and property from fire.
Impressions from that period of my career have stayed with me ever since. I feel truly blessed to be an American, in this land of great opportunity for all. I am thankful to God for what I have received during my life, and the fulfilling work that I have been able to enjoy in industries that benefit others. I wanted to give back to this country and to its people, not just through charitable giving, but in a way in which I could continue to employ the management and leadership skills that I have learned over the years.
When I learned about City Light Capital from Marc Weill and Josh Cohen, it was clear to me that this would be a great way to spend the second half of my career. I have been the CEO of a mission-based company which experienced firsthand how a mission combined with strong business practices could create great returns for investors. In the case of Viking Group, literally produce products that save lives. Now through City Light Capital I can leverage my financial capital and experience to partner with other mission-based entrepreneurial teams tackling some of America’s toughest challenges.
Based on our experience at City Light so far, it is clear that I am not alone. Other experienced business leaders and talented young professionals are turning their attention to the big challenges in safety, education, energy conservation and other vital areas. While I love the Viking Group and its people, and I remain involved in an oversight role there as chairman, I look forward to partnering with these dedicated entrepreneurs looking to leverage the power of markets and technology – and am quite sure that in the future we will have other important stories to share about the impact we have made together.
Tom is a partner at City Light Capital. Beyond his current City Light fund responsibilities, he is a member of the boards of Shotspotter-SST (NASDAQ:SSTI) (Newark, CA), Heartland Automation (Marysville, MI), and Minimax-Viking (Hamburg, Germany).
After a 26 year career in the safety and security space, including stints as CEO at Tyden Group and Viking Group, Tom is now Vice Chairman of the Board of Minimax-Viking, a global fire protection systems company. He joined Josh Cohen and City Light at an early stage in order to leverage his work experience and assist young for-profit companies as they pursue positive impact to society and the environment. Tom also works to spread the concept of impact investing among private investors.
Current service activities include: The Board of Endeavor Detroit, the Board of Trustees at Cornell University, the SW Michigan Land Conservancy, and cofounder of The ImPact Society, a non-profit dedicated to promotion of impact investing. He was Chairman of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, a board member of the National Fire Protection Association, The Deming Center for Productivity at Columbia Business School, the Salvation Army of West Michigan, and was publicly elected to the Board of the Hastings MI Area School System.
Tom grew up in Hastings, MI and attended Cornell University and Columbia Business School. He and Lisa, wife of 36 years, have two married children and a grandchild.