Tom Click – Co-Founder, President & CEO, Patriot Aluminum

Tom Click and his wife, Sarah, founded Patriot Aluminum in 2010. The company’s focus on the traditional American values of hard work and innovation have allowed the company to make the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies for three years in a row. Prior to forming Patriot Aluminum Products, Mr. Click spent ten years in the metals industry, most recently as Vice President of Market Development for Norsk Hydro Aluminum and previously as Vice President of Marketing & Product Development for Indalex Aluminum (now Sapa Group). Before entering the metals industry, Mr. Click managed the product management and engineering departments for the Amerock division of Newell Rubbermaid. Tom received his B.B.A. from the University of Kentucky and an M.B.A. from the Gatton College of Business & Economics at the University of Kentucky.

Tell me about your early career.
I have an MBA in marketing and strategy and absolutely love the subject, but have always been fascinated by manufacturing. As a kid, one of my favorite toys was Tinkertoy. I was always building things. I worked my way through college doing administrative and customer service-type jobs, but my first job as an M.B.A. was as product manager for a small vinyl window manufacturer. I loved it, and enjoyed creating costing, quoting, and forecasting models for our products. They had almost zero systems, even at $35 million. It was a great proving ground for my education. After that, I went to one of the Newell Rubbermaid companies as marketing director for the engineering and product management groups. Another great experience with a very old and established company. But the best was yet to come, when I switched to the aluminum extrusion industry. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Indalex was the number three player in an old line industry, with old ways of managing, and I got to help them develop new systems, new customer relationships, and new products. It was awesome.

How did the concept for Patriot Aluminum Products come about?
Extrusion companies are like lumber mills, very good at making 2×4’s but not good at making products. After a couple of years at Indalex, they asked me to help manage two of the North Carolina facilities which had a few products – Coiled Tube, Drawn Tube, and Aluminum Conduit. Another great experience. We changed our market model, marketing, pricing – basically everything except how we made the products. One facility went from netting $1.2 million annually to over $6 million in about twelve months, and then to over $9 million in eighteen months. I had thought the Conduit product would be a good one for me to consider down the road, but was happy as VP of Marketing. Shortly after, a private equity group came in and started making big changes, and I was “restructured.” No problem. I almost launched Patriot then, but with my third child on the way, I decided to wait a bit and went to work for another large extrusion company, Norsk Hydro. The private equity group at Indalex started cashing in, and selling off company assets. The company went bankrupt the following year. Norsk Hydro was a good company, and I enjoyed my time there at VP of Marketing, but when a new president came in, I found myself out. Fortunately, I had resolved to start Patriot before my change, and focused my energy on finishing the business development, creating the marketing model, buying and testing equipment, finding partners, and meeting with bankers. I’m better at relating this story live. My severance from Hydro gave me the time and money to finish creating Patriot – it was like a godsend.

How was the first year in business?
Like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down. We were developing production and sales at the same time. We developed some really strong bonds between the office and production staff and our salesforce. Machines would break randomly, or we’d run out of material or strapping supplies or coolant for the machining operations. Somehow, I managed to keep my head and we would just keep moving forward inch by inch until the problem was solved. I have tons of great stories about that first year. We used to have lunch every couple of months with the production crew, and one of our older members decides to start singing during lunch. He’s still with us. We broke even that first year, and gave out turkeys and hams and even paid a bonus to the production crew and our bookkeeper. No bonus for the partners, but it felt great to take care of the crew.

What was your marketing strategy?
During the early development phase, I realized that Patriot would stand out as the only American-owned and operated family business in our industry. The initial plan was to simply showcase that we were the “American” company, and it became clear that while that message resonated with our customers, the family business component was a great connector. I’d guess that approximately 90% of our customers either are or were family businesses at one time. Fortunately, we also had the best quality and service models, all at the same price as our competition. It was easy for customers to shift business to Patriot.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Like a weed. Our first year out we did nearly $5 million. $8 million in year two, almost $10 million in year three, around $17 million in year four. We’ve been listed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies, three years in a row. It was amazing and beautiful.

How do you define success?
Not by money, fortune, or fame, but by making a difference for our country and in the lives of the people around us. We asked a few of our longest-standing employees what “Patriotism” meant to them. One of the most beautiful answers came from Dallas Hunter, “America didn’t name itself, it was named by it’s people, and if you want to help America, you help it’s people.” I feel that every day we are in business is a success, even better when we’re growing.

What is the key to success?
Putting in the time and effort to come up with a good plan and an even better team. Then setting your path and never giving up. You might have to change direction a bit, but never give up.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
When you face a big problem and feel that you’ve reached the bottom and have exhausted every possible solution, don’t be afraid to ask for help and pray for your business and the people in it every day. I have been amazed by how many people in industry want to help other people in industry. Be professional, be thankful, get connected, and make friends. Your business will grow.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough.” “Every good project has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” “I predict…success.” “Everyone loves a winner…even when they’re losing.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The Discipline of Market Leaders by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema, and Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
It was one of the toughest, but also one of the best. When Patriot first started, Sarah and I had a couple of partners. Combined, they owned 25% of the business, and it became clear early on that the entrepreneurial lifestyle did not fit them. I fired one of them, and the other resigned. It was like a magic wand had hit the business, and sales went up as soon as they were gone. Shortly after their exit, we started working on a buyout. It was like a bad divorce. However, after a few months we had an agreement, and on October 12, 2012, I went to my attorney’s office to finalize the buyout paperwork. In the weeks leading up to this, I had noticed that I was out of breath frequently, and exhausted every day. I chocked this up to the stress of the buyout, but thought it best to get checked out. So, the same day, October 12, 2012, I had a routine physical scheduled. The first clue that something was up was the nurse coming back a second time to take my blood. “Our machine didn’t work on that first test, so I need to pinprick your finger again.” No problem. Then she came back a third time. “I don’t understand it, but the blood test machine works on my blood, but not yours. So, we have to take a vial and send it to UVA.” After signing all the documents at my attorney’s office and listening to Nina Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” on repeat, I got a call from my wife. I had to go to the emergency room immediately. This feeling of dread overcame me, so I went home to say goodbye to my children and wife, for the last time I thought. Sarah had arranged some last minute childcare from our neighbors, and went to the ER with me. It turned out that my bone marrow had failed, and I was essentially a dead man walking, no platelets, a fraction of what a normal man should have for white blood cells, and about half of normal red blood cells. The hospitalization and stress and three bone marrow biopsies and personal soul searching that followed is a much longer story. The short version is that facing the prospect of death, just when my business was starting to grow, kicked my brain into overdrive and reinforced that I will never give up. This experience helped me develop some of my best marketing ideas – our calendar, using the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter (since Patriot was probably going to managed by my wife Sarah after I passed), trusting my management team (entrusting only three people with my secret illness) – all of this worked out for Patriot’s benefit. The good news is, I got to live, and the company continues to grow.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The people and families that count on the the company’s success. Patriot has around sixty employees – that’s sixty families – probably 200 people directly benefiting from our efforts. If you add in our sales team, that number grows by around 500 people who are counting on us every day.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
“There is no try, do or do not.” You have to go all in on your effort for the business. Be mindful to take care of your family, especially if you’re married, and work those long hours after you put the kids to bed or before they wake up in the morning.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.