Our Company History at Thern
At Thern Inc., we pride ourselves on being family founded, owned, and run. Recently, several members of the family sat down to talk about our company history, track record, and promising future. Members of the conversation include Danne and Fred, daughter and son-in-law of Royal and Lucille Thern, and Tedd and Tracy, son and daughter-in-law of Danne and Fred.
Our Company History Q&A
Q: What inspired Royal to start his own company in 1948?
Danne: He had a great desire to be independent.
Fred: He was motivated by his engineering degree, but I think he was also inspired by the products he helped to engineer at Diamond Huller, like the corn sheller.
Tedd: I believe it comes from his experience in the Air Force. He oversaw a team who maintained airplanes during the war. The job was high stakes, super urgent, and constant. I think he experienced the gratitude of having a talented, close-knit team. I don’t think he found that at Diamond Huller. He was just another cog in the wheel. At Thern, he created relationships that were reminiscent of his team in the war. What Danne said is true. He is fiercely independent, but in addition, I think he was looking for a more fulfilling work experience, similar to what he experienced in the air force.
Danne: He wanted to fly his own wings and be his own boss.
Q: When did you start working for Thern and what was your experience beginning at Thern?
Fred: I started working for Thern on March 28th, 1977 on a Monday. My position was in technical sales and assistant sales management.
Danne: I started July 1st, 1977.
Fred: We had just moved from Nebraska. We put everything away on Sunday and went to work that Monday.
Danne: I oversaw the bookkeeping, and I was trained in by my mother Lucille. When I started, everything was done manually. We would record invoices and payments by hand and had to balance the books using a calculator.
Fred: When I started, there were 4–5 people total in sales. I worked on some larger projects with Royal too. It was a job in sales, and I enjoyed sales. I had no expectations to eventually run the company or even climb the ladder. I had no idea it was going to be a long-time job or if I even had the talent.
Tedd: Just to clarify, a job position for Fred didn’t just open. Grandpa Royal was always looking to add talent to the company as it was growing. Dad was in between jobs, and he liked sales, so grandpa took him on.
Fred: And the other thing is that I had to go through the interview process with the Head of Sales and Royal!
Danne: Royal was very family oriented. Since he and Lucille had founded the company, he felt that if family members wanted to work there, that was OK with him, no questions asked. That was just his way of thinking. If you are a member of the family, you are welcome in the door.
Tedd: When we moved back to Winona, Grandpa Royal was always willing to provide opportunities to family. The grandkids were offered odd jobs like sweeping the floor at minimum wage, which was incredible at the time, getting that kind of money was a big deal. Me and my siblings took advantage of this through high school and college. I didn’t formally come back to work at Thern until around 2000. My first position was in marketing. My brother, Sheldon, had been the general manager in the 90s and had resigned from that position in order to move off in another direction. Mom and Dad didn’t want to continue running the company without the possibility of passing it on to a successor that was also family, so I thought okay, I’ll give it a try! And of course I ended up staying. After marketing, I went on to become general manager and then became president in 2010. Before I came to Thern, I was working as a graphic designer, and I actually designed the first version of the logo we still have today.
Q: What is the legacy you left behind at Thern?
Tedd: When I started, I was heavily involved in leading a team, as well as helping to facilitate and get out of a rut with revenues.
Fred: Thern was losing sales to companies based and manufacturing in other countries other than North America as they were able to make things at a lower price. We decided that we could make up lost revenue by advertising our ability to custom-engineer lifting products.
Tedd: We were also losing sales because of a significant change in marketing. In 1977, there was a surge in lawsuits across the country. Product liability was a huge deal. Sears upped their insurance. People would buy a product by Sears and sue Sears, and they would end up suing the small companies that couldn’t afford it. Royal made the tough decision to not renew the insurance, which booted Thern out of the Sears catalog. This had a huge effect on our revenue, as well as the foreign competition Dad (Fred) mentioned.
How did you advertise this new tactic: the ability to engineer custom winches?
Tedd: We pushed the messaging through our independent sales reps. We always did offer custom winches, but it didn’t happen often. We got the reps to spread the word and share the stories of custom winches for job applications
What do you think makes Thern a strong company?
Tedd: If we go back to the early days, the first really big success was with Sears and Roebuck and with products like the differential hoist, designed by Royal and manufactured by Thern. These products were sold at a very good value. He got into Sears with a good-quality and good-priced product. Royal would showcase the product to Sears. It was the internet of the 50s; if you get into Sears, you are made. We knocked out competition relatively quickly. This was a critical part of our history. This sustained us for many years until the 70s and 80s. Fred really identified our first vertical market in the 80s: the water/wastewater market. Following that market with other verticals. This was the first time where we really looked at markets and delved further.
Fred: In 1988, we showed our first product at a show in Dallas for water/wastewater.
Tedd: 2002 was the year Fred and I discovered the theater vertical. No matter what though, we’ve always maintained quality that Royal was proud of.
Danne: I think another thing that made the company stand out, from day one, is that Thern Inc. treats its employees very well. Grandpa Thern was a very understanding boss.
Tedd: We have always been careful of taking care of our employees, but it’s also the other way around. The company has always been in good, highly skilled, and motivated hands.
What do you see for Thern’s future, and does it fulfill Royal’s original vision?
Tedd: I think we continue to align with Royal’s vision.
Fred: We are now designing products meant to be bought off the shelf.
Tedd: I think we are going to do a lot of the same; focus on value and products with large market opportunities. If we go back and say that Grandpa’s (Royal Thern’s) purpose was to develop a company that values employees and a teamwork environment, that’s what we still do today. He did that by designing and developing top notch products at a good price, and we want to continue to emulate that. Carry those core values forward. Thern has always been a family business and has a strong sense of treating employees like family, and we want to continue doing that with future family owners. A lot of people apply because they want to work at a family business. Customers want to work with us because they know they will be taken care of.
What was a job application that excited you?
Fred: I was always impressed by the NASA launchpad project. The winches raise and lower the launchpad.
Danne: I was always impressed by the wind towers.
Fred: Oh yes, our winches were used to lower and raise them for maintenance.
Tedd: The Marion power shovel, which was a large electric winch that was used to pull the rigging through a large mining steam shovel.
Fred: Another project that was exciting was the Navy Sea Shed Project in the late 80s. Our winches helped to raise and lower equipment to various levels of the ship. Our winches would open the trap doors, so things could be lowered. Huge boxes that were stacked 3–4 layers. They opened all the top panels, loaded the bottom box, shut the lid, loaded the second, and shut the lid. We didn’t have the main contract at first, and we were out there with one of the engineers to see if our product could be accepted against the competition. There was no comparison with our product. It was quieter and better priced. The other made way too much noise. We actually won the contract. This project really conveyed what we could do with customized winches.
Fred: See this product here? (Fred showed us a container of oat milk) On the back, the CEO said, “I love my products. How dorky is that?” (Fred chuckles) But the important thing to note is that he talks about the quality of his products. What he’s trying to say is that he’s proud to be working at a company that inspires people to upgrade their lives for generations to come. It’s a higher priced product but it’s outstanding. I feel like Thern is a similar company.
Other family members working for Thern include Theodor Morgan, Tessara Layne Morgan, Luke Farley, Hunter Morgan, and Sheldon Morgan.
We hope you enjoyed a look into our company history from members of Thern’s founding family!