How do you re-energize a trusted brand? How do you correct for the shortcomings of a few owners who made some questionable decisions? How do you regain marketshare in a market that’s not only crowded, but also highly discerning?
These are the very questions American rod manufacturer Thomas and Thomas is facing. Over recent years, T&T has passed through a number of owners. On the river bank, I heard questions and concerns, but little clarity; people wondered what had happened to the once great company. Enter Neville Orsmond, the new CEO of T&T. Judging from the amount of energy he demonstrated, he has some answers to these questions. And judging from the frequency with which his cell phone rang, other people do, too.
That’s a good thing, as I’ll admit some bias here: I’ve always been a fan of T&T. Their roots are in bamboo fly rod making. Their standards for quality were high. Their aesthetic was both classic, and of its time. And their work — American-made, uncompromising, clean — always seemed honest to me. Then, like others, I began to worry.
And so it was with great relief when, during a recent visit to their Greenfield offices, Neville, joined by founder Tom Dorsey, Troy Jacques, the resident bamboo rod maker, communications director John Carpenter, spoke openly of these historic challenges, and of the work they’re doing to restore confidence in the brand, as well as renewing the company’s core product offering. The conversation was, like their work, genuine. And their optimism seemed authentic, not staged.
I first noticed signs of the improved direction a little while ago. Notably, the first sign was with a video they produced to promote the launch of their new saltwater rod series, Solar. The video was beautifully done, and done by someone that understood the historic values of T&T. In it, Tom Dorsey said one thing that I think beautifully describes the ambition of rodmakers, bamboo or graphite: “A fine rod is a rod that you can love. You’ve really accomplished something when you make a rod that is the one that people want to reach for before all of his others.”
A fine rod is a rod that you can love. Embedded in that sentence are so many values, values of craftsmanship, of artistry and of American-made products — values that werein decline among the major brands in fly fishing, until a recent wave of companies. Brands like Vedavoo, Hatch, and Finn Utility come to mind — brands whose products are made by hand here in the US, and not on a foreign CNC lathe. (Abel has, of course, held this position for a long time.)
The feeling of reaching for one rod is the feeling I’ve only ever had for two rods. When going for trout, I reach for the bamboo rod my dad made me when I graduated from high school. When going saltwater fishing, my hand is empty; the Loomis CrossCurrent is no replacement for my old GLX. I’m still searching for the next salt rod that beckons.
Will Neville, Tom and the T&T team produce the rods that we want to reach for, once again? I sure do hope so. They have a few tricks up their sleeve that will be new for the 2015 season, and will, hopefully, garner some attention. So too, I hope, will better customer service, and improved processing time for repairs — something that people have felt to be lacking in recent years.
Neville seems intent on turning it around. A South African by birth, he lives in Connecticut but is so devoted to T&T is he that he spends the week up at the Greenfield offices. In talking about Dorsey, he speaks with a respect for Dorsey’s history, and his skills. Neville has the disposition of an energetic steward. If I understood him correctly, he hopes for a revitalization, not a reinvention — and return it to stable, prosperous footing.
Before leaving, T&T gave me two rods to test, a fiberglass and a graphite rod. Now that the rivers are beginning to clear, I’m looking forward to getting out on the water with them both and sharing my thoughts.
I have a sense good things are going to happen at T&T. Solar was a good start; it certainly got some attention. Now, only the changes with the seasons will tell what they have up their sleeve. But I would argue that should companies with values like those held by T&T make a sustained comeback, we all stand to gain.
Here are some photos from the visit.