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WHEN WARREN THOMA WAS discharged from the Army in 1976, he was 24 years old. Married and the father of a twomonth old baby, he didn’t have a clue as to what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. But, being a sharp young man, it didn’t take him long to figure out his calling. When you talk about a person being invested, he is right there with the best of them. He has devoted his entire career to the green industry.
This past November, Thoma assumed the presidency of the Irrigation Association, an organization he has been a member of since 1988, and one that he is totally committed to. His goals and aspirations are to help grow the association, both in the turf area and agriculture. With water on most people’s minds these days, the Irrigation Association can and will play an important role in the conservation of this vital resource.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1952, his family moved to Ligonier, Pennsylvania, when he was in third grade. After graduating from high school, Thoma enrolled at Slippery Rock State College in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. Although he started college, he never attended classes, so when his parents moved to the Clearwater, Florida area, he jumped at the opportunity to go with them. He knew that if he had stayed in school he would have flunked out, and how would he be able to explain that to his parents?
Once he got to Florida, he told his parents that he wanted to take some time off before starting college again. Excited about living in Florida, he got a job on a fishing boat, and for the next year that’s where he worked. However, he forgot that the draft was still on and since he wasn’t in school, he was drafted into the Army. “Damn good thing I got drafted; otherwise, I’d still be on a fishing boat,” said Thoma.
The Vietnam War was raging in 1972, when Thoma was drafted. When he finished basic training, he knew that most of those who finished with him would be going to Vietnam. He asked his commander how he could avoid going into battle. His commander told him that the army needed Russian translators, so he signed up to go to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.
However, it was a 47-week course, and the requirement was that Thoma had to have a minimum amount of time left to serve following the training. He didn’t have the time required, so he had to sign up for another two years.
Thoma had never spoken Russian, but he learned to speak it fluently at DLI. He finished at the top of his class. He was then sent to a special school in Texas, where he was taught to eavesdrop. He was there for six months.
“They called it radio intercept school; I called it spy school,” said Thoma. Upon finishing school, he was sent to Berlin. This was in 1974, and he was 22 years old. When he got to Berlin, he was assigned to work at Teufelsberg—an NSA listening post referred to as ‘Devil’s Mountain’ by the locals.
While there he met Penny; she was running a sub system. Actually, he took her job. “I hated him for it,” she said. However, during this period, they fell in love and got married. Penny became pregnant and their first child, Sam, was born in Berlin. When Thoma was discharged from the Army, Sam was two months old.
They moved back to Florida, and he started to think about getting a job to support his growing family. He had always liked gardening. He remembered, even as a kid, planting shrubs and color. He went into a nursery, and in talking to the owner, he learned that they were looking for a manager. He got the job and worked in the nursery for about three years, until 1979.
Thoma realized that, in order to be successful, he needed to round out his education, so he enrolled in the University of Southern Florida. At about that time, he was offered a job with one of the distributors. Two years later, one of their largest competitors offered him a job that took him to Jacksonville, Florida, where he continued going to school at the University of Northern Florida. His territory included northern Florida and eastern Georgia.
Penny was pregnant again, and their daughter Lara was born. Both felt they needed a change of venue, so when Lara was one month old, they moved back to Pennsylvania, with no plans in mind. Determined to get a job, Thoma walked into the Gilmore Company and became their national accounts manager. They gave him 17 accounts, including Walmart, Sears, and Ace Hardware.
Two years into the job, he received a call from Rain Bird and interviewed to be a regional manager, covering the Rocky Mountain States. They moved to Colorado, where Thoma continued with his schooling at the University of Colorado. Overall, he spent 16 years going to night school, while working during the day. He earned three degrees: business, marketing, and accounting.
One year into the job, he became a product manager for Rain Bird, sold his house in Colorado and bought another one in Rialto, California. He was elevated to the position of senior product manager with Rain Bird, where he stayed for about eight years, until he was hired away by Garden America. He was regional manager for 22 states. In 1988, he moved to Chicago, but there was turmoil at Garden America. It was first sold to Emhart, who later sold to Black & Decker, then to Hardie. As Thoma puts it, “It was a nightmare for two years, nothing but paperwork.”
Calling on irrigation distributors in the Midwest, Thoma knew them all. One day, he received a call from Ernie Hodas, who at that time owned Century Rain Aid, an irrigation distributor with headquarters in Michigan and branches in Florida and Georgia. After some discussion, Thoma left Garden America and took on the role of a consultant for Hodas.
After working with Hodas for about a year, Thoma realized that it wasn’t a good fit. But, after all the moves he had made, Thoma decided to stay put. In 1991, he became a manufacturer’s representative and has loved every minute since then.
It’s not quite 40 years since Warren Thoma entered the green industry. He has touched many bases, and has a strong working knowledge of the market. However, what stands out the most is his commitment, his passion and his love of the industry.
During his presidency at the Irrigation Association, he hopes to strengthen the ties that bind the industry together, and leave it a better place for those who will eventually replace us.