Thorlo: A case study of Positive Leadership & Culture

Marcella Bremer Organization 1 Comment

m_JimJim Ritchie-Dunham coined the term Ecosynomics. Ecosynomics provides a theoretical framework that shows the often hidden, underlying agreements that affect human collaboration, and how to change these fundamental assumptions.

Energetic, high-performance teams start from a different initial assumption than economic scarcity. They start with abundance. Ecosynomics, the social science of abundance, explains how that changes all the rules of the game. Let’s take a look at an inspiring case study based on Ecosynomics, abundance and positive leadership: Thorlo.

Warm, comfortable socks

The life of United States military personnel is demanding – but what gives comfort, literally? Socks. Warm socks that fit well and support your feet during busy days. Well, that counts for people outside the military too. Families send good socks to their loved ones serving abroad. And that’s why Thorlo started to craft special socks for the armed forces. Susan Smyth, who does Product Development, says: “At the time they need home most, we’re there for them.”

Thorlo Inc. was founded by Jim Throneburg in Statesville, North Carolina in 1962 – but the start was earlier. It was his father Lewis Thorneburg who started to do business in his modest house. As the third generation, Carter Throneburg explains: “Our granddad was a craftsman, a machinist. He created a knitting machine.” Erica Throneburg adds: “Our grandparents worked really hard. One would take a nap, the other would continue work – and the other way around – before they had employees. That impressed me.”

m_labJim Throneburg, the current CEO, took over and is dedicated to quality. Business picked up and Thorlo employs hundreds of workers nowadays and maintains various product lines. Jim’s goals are to keep manufacturing jobs close to home – he enjoys and fosters the Southern culture and hospitality. “When I pass, I will haunt you if you move the company,” he jokes.

Rooted in local community

But the American textile industry has had a hard time. Some towns in North Carolina turned into ghost towns because manufacturing was outsourced overseas. “It may take three years to develop a product line and then competitors copy it within 60 days,” explains Susan Smyth their challenge.

As employees, we should do everything as if we owned the business Click To Tweet

Thorlo decided to stay – the culture gives it an advantage. It is rooted in the local community – but there’s more to Thorlo’s success than local culture and community. It’s the way Jim Throneburg leads the company.

Director Richard Oliver says: “Jim doesn’t see people as employees. He wants you to do everything as if you owned the business. He sees us as a family.” Susan Smyth adds: “He wants us to be honest. He doesn’t always agree with what you say, but he respects us.” The respect is mutual, and so is the trust. Thorlo’s employees are dedicated – so there is no need for managers.

No bosses

Thorlo used to have supervisors, though. “Everyone had someone who was paid to check if you did your job right. But people are responsible for their own work”, says Jim. That’s the epiphany he had that led him to change his company – to let go of tight control, supervising and micro management – because he saw the lack of energy and commitment that was the result.

m_chris labashToday, there’s no one who tells you what to do. Everyone can contribute ideas and take ownership of their tasks.

Thorlo started to innovate with activity-specific socks for running, hiking, skiing, from hunting to basketball. They are dedicated to excellence. You can engineer more about socks than you’d think: every activity requires different padding, depending on the pressure on the feet, the moisture, etc.

Professor Chris Labash studies innovation at Carnegie Mellon University and got really interested in Thorlo’s extraordinary business case. “This is not where you expect it: a manufacturing mill without bosses! This is about owning your work. The care and the craft go up.”
This is about owning your work. The care and the craft go up. Click To Tweet

Owning your work

m_thurlo
But owning your work requires extra discipline from people: they work in a team and have to grasp leadership skills as well. As Angie Bass, HR, summarizes: “If you need structure, don’t work here.”

Creative collaboration is sometimes a messy process – but it works. The proof is in their performance figures, but also in the Customer Support department – they have satisfied customers and they have hung all their “love letters” on the wall. Reading that correspondence energizes the staff: They know whom they’re working for, whom they serve and what difference they make for others.

Creative collaboration is sometimes messy but it works. Click To Tweet

Take the tragedy of Rachel Bielstein, a customer. Her young child lost his foot in a terrible lawn mower accident. He needed special socks against moisture of the stump and she couldn’t find them anywhere – so she wrote a letter to Thorlo. The staff jumped into action – they designed a unique sock to fit the boy’s foot stump. Thorlo didn’t send a bill: they decided it was a gift. Bielstein is now a fan forever: “It’s a great company – with great socks.”

A Positive Purpose

Brilliant marketing and community building? Yes, but that’s more a side effect than the main goal. Thorlo says: It’s a small thing to do for us – while it means the world to this customer. Charity and family mean a lot to Thorlo.

Professor Labash: “At Thorlo decisions are about what is the right thing to do as opposed to a good business decision. Their user base is evangelistic; it is beyond loyalty. You can’t buy this kind of marketing.”

Selling socks is not Thorlo’s primary mission – their purpose is to serve the long-term interest of their customers – helping people keep healthy feet. That’s why Thorlo financed a study on diabetic feet. “The fabric can save your life as a diabetic because the padding helps to mitigate the numbness that eventually causes diabetic feet to starve.” Hence the non-profit institute for healthy feet that Thorlo founded.

If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life Click To Tweet

Thorlo started making socks for elderly people; their employees are turning middle-aged. Susan Smyth: “When you get older, you start to get sore feet because there’s less fat cushions. I’m over 50, and I put myself in their shoes. We contribute to the quality of life, for the staff as well, with socks that help keep your feet healthy.”

“If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”, Susan says. “I look forward to coming to work and making a difference.” Jim Throneburg concludes: “Whatever you want out of life: learn to give that to everybody, every day.” That gives Thorlo a distinct advantage – and an atmosphere of abundance and positivity.

  • What stands out for you, after reading this case?
  • How can you apply some of the principles for yourself?

Coverage by Marcella Bremer, based on the Thorlo documentary.

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.


Comments 1

  1. Thanks for sharing this case study. More businesses need a “atmosphere of abundance and positivity” and a focus on the employees that are creating success.

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