Thorlo documentary on the culture of "no bosses". Employees explain the freedom, responsibility and ownership in the creation of extraordinary padded foot protection
Title: Documentary: No Bosses: Unique Culture of Thorlo Made-in-America Socks
VO: It may be one of the best business stories you’ve never heard of.
WOMAN: It’s not easy because socks aren’t necessarily something that’s real sexy to talk about.
VO: Until now.
[TITLE] NO BOSSES, A Leadership Story
VO: The life of forward-deployed US troops is physically demanding. While the military equips them with basic provisions, they are also sometimes supplemented by gifts from home. One of the most sought after items may surprise you: high quality socks.
DALE BEATTY: An army may march on its stomach, but it can’t get there with blisters on its feet.
ALEXANDER LAND: Anybody that I talk to, any friends or family, if they ask, they want to send me anything, I always socks, ‘cause I … except for certain good pairs, like those, you go through socks really quick.
VO: So the THORLO company, based in North Carolina, started making specially crafted socks for members of the armed services. These aren’t part of any government contract. It’s a private company initiative. THORLO, along with their loyal customers, paid to donate these socks to American troops.
DAVID WARD: We have, in the past few years, have raised the money and, donate thousands of pairs of socks and shipped them overseas.
CODY COTRILL: It’s nice to get socks from somebody who knows exactly what I need them for instead of just basic, ordinary socks that just don’t cut it.
DALE BEATTY: Just in that, out of their own pocket, and then eventually, Thorlo corporately sending those products over to our troops. I mean it’s just a … a justification that, that you know, at least some people are behind you.
SUSAN SMYTH: At a time when they need home the most, we’re there for them.
VO: That sense of home threads back to the company’s humble origins. It’s in this modest house in Statesville, North Carolina, where Lewis Thornburg began the business.
CARTER THRONEBURG: You know, granddaddy was a craftsman and a dye and tool maker, machinist.
VO: And he was an entrepreneur, using his savings to purchase knitting machines.
ERICA THRONEBURG: When they first started, my grandmother and my grandfather would take turns knitting for 12 hours. One would lay on a pile of socks and take a nap and, while the other one knitted, and then they would switch out. And that always left such a huge impression in my mind that before they ever had employees they were doing this thing on their own.
JIM THRONEBURG: And they just, through sheer grit, will power, whatever you want to call it, just refused not to live his dream.
VO: Dedication to quality craftsmanship turned that dream into a reality. As business picked up, the family home was extended to accommodate a mill.
LYNN THRONEBURG: It’s basically a concrete block building that the family got together and pretty much built themselves.
VO: Now, decades later, his son Jim at the helm, the operation is substantially larger, employing hundreds of workers, and boasting a wide variety of highly regarded product lines. And while the business group, operators made a commitment to keep manufacturing jobs close to home.
BRAD WARREN: THORLO Company has always been in Statesville, North Carolina, and will always be in Statesville, North Carolina, the manufacturing process, umm, and the, the Southern culture, and the hospitality, is definitely woven deep.
VO: It’s a sentiment firmly endorsed by Thorlo’s owner who vows the company will remain on US soil even after his death.
JIM THRONEBURG: This I what I tell the group in leadership: “Look, when I pass, Houdini could not get back. I will come back. I will haunt you at night. You will never sleep again if you screw this up after I’m gone,” okay. So I say no, we’ll never go, we’ll never outsource.
VO: The strong resolve to stay US based doesn’t come easy. The American textile industry has been battered by foreign competitors who don’t always play fair.
SUSAN SMYTH: There have been times when it has taken us two to three years to develop something and we see competitors and knock-offs knocking us off within 30 to 60 days.
VO: A lot of other US textile manufacturers haven’t been able to withstand that kind of pressure.
RICHARD OLIVER: You can go into some western North Carolina towns now and it’s like ghost towns, I mean because once the textiles kind of dried up and the furniture factories dried up, there’s nothing left over there.
VO: But just like the US troops they support, Thorlo won’t back down from a fight. The generations of families that have worked side by side here claim Thorlo’s unusual corporate culture gives it a critical advantage, and at the center of it all is owner, Jim Throneburg.
RICHARD OLIVER: I’ve never met an owner like Jim, and how he thought about the company and the people that worked in the company.
VO: Jim doesn’t see the folks who work here as mere employees. He encourages them to take a more personal view of the business.
JIM THRONEBURG: Everybody in leadership is held to that standard, that they should approach everything they do as if they owned the whole business.
SUSAN SMYTH: He wants us to be honest; he wants us to come to him with everything that we’re thinking, everything we believe. He may not always agree, but he respects it.
VO: The respect is mutual, and so is the trust. In fact, the staff is so dedicated to quality craftsmanship that the company sees no need for the type of managers found in traditional textile mills.
JIM THRONEBURG: These folks have always had somebody that was paid to make sure they did all the work right and did a lot of it. There was always a supervisor. And I took this away from them. I said, “You’re responsible for your own work.”
BRAD WARREN: We don’t have bosses. We don’t have people that are telling you what to do, people that we answer to. It’s more of a team.
DAVID VARSIK: It’s like playing on a sports team that’s really good and they’re winning. It doesn’t get any better than that.
ERICA THRONEBURG: There’s nobody in the company that can’t contribute. I mean there’s no walls, there’s no barriers. Everybody’s ideas are welcome. Doesn’t mean we can do them all, but everybody’s ideas are welcome.
VO: Embracing the best ideas in a workplace without bosses requires an extra level of discipline from the staff. They have to straddle two concepts: working in a team environment while also internalizing leadership skills.
ANGIE BASS: You’re aware enough to understand that you’re an individual that needs a lot of structure and that you need that hierarchical structure to do a good job, if you need to know exactly what’s expected of you and exactly what your role is, then this is probably not the place for you.
CARTER THRONEBURG: We work off of a system of collaboration and, and creative [00:06:21] collaboration at that. And that’s a messy process.
VO: But the results can be stunning. At the customer support center, phone calls and e-mails pour in from satisfied customers.
WOMAN: This colorful wall, it’s actually what I call my love letters from people that are really special to me and were kind enough to send pictures. These are people that, that we’ve talked to, that we’ve made a difference in their lives.
VO: The correspondence energizes the staff.
JEFF LAWSON: I start every morning, just like everyone else in the company does, reading the e-mail we receive from consumers the day before.
ANGIE BASS: It’s one of the, one of the things I look forward to receiving in my in box, because it psyches you up. That’s what makes us care, people who owe their very lives, according to their own words, to our product and how it helps them do what they want to do. That’s what makes us do what we do.
VO: THORLO’s distinctive culture has been observed far beyond it’s home base, drawing the attention of a seemingly unlikely source. Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. It’s here where Professor Chris Labash teaches courses on corporate innovation.
CHRIS LABASH: When we’re talking about the Apples and the Googles and the Virgins and, and et ceteras, of the world, we tend to expect innovation from them. But when you find innovation in places where you might not, at first blush, think it exists, that’s the kind of thing I want students to notice. That’s the kind of thing I want everybody to notice because it says, you know, if they can do it, why can’t I?
VO: The manufacturing mill that operates without bosses is the kind of innovation that intrigues Professor Labash.
CHRIS LABASH: This about you owning your work. I think when any company can do that, when you … when you suddenly get people to have this sense of personal responsibility the craftsmanship goes up, the care goes up, the, the passion goes up. And I think you certainly see that at THORLO.
VO: Dedication to excellence and innovation fuels that passion. It was, after all, product innovation that propelled the company’s success when owner Jim Throneburg invented the activity-specific sock. It started with the women’s roll-top golf socks and quickly expanded to cover a range of sports and activities, everything from hunting to basketball.
RICK MATHENA: A ski sock’s going to have a shin pad. A tennis sock is going to have a toe pad over the toes to protect the forces on the foot, of your foot moving in your shoe while you’re performing your activity. Those are not just by accident, they’re by design, they’re engineered in specifically.
VO: Even the yarn, developed using proprietary blended fiber, is carefully selected.
BRAD WARREN: We want to put that yarn in a certain position to be able to, to reduce sheer, to reduce friction.
ROBERT THOMPSON: And padding, we call it terry padding, in a padded sock, is more protective than one without. In an acrylic blend sock, terry padding will absorb moisture and wick it away; in a cotton sock it just absorbs but it doesn’t know how to wick moisture away. And wicking it away keeps the piece of terry padding that stays against your foot dry, most all of the time.
VO: Those wicking properties prove critical for this family as they struggle to recover from a personal tragedy.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: I was in a very desperate situation. I was … didn’t really know where to turn.
VO: It had been a beautiful day, and for toddler Jonathan Bielstein, it was a day filled with exploration. He had just shared a ride on this lawnmower and wanted the fun to continue. It didn’t.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: Jonathan was involved in a lawnmower accident. Umm, being two and a half he didn’t understand the scope of a lawnmower yet and he wanted to get back on a lawnmower and, umm, the lawnmower didn’t get shut off quickly enough and, umm, and he walked up to the lawnmower. That’s what happened to him. It was very devastating. It was horribly devastating. It was … kind of rip your heart out and stomp on it kind of moment.
VO: A portion of his foot had to be amputated, and the stump of that foot would need extra care so he could make use of a specially-designed brace.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: And because of what, how the brace is made, his foot can sweat sometimes. So I knew that I needed to find him a sock that would wick away the moisture from his foot.
VO: She called Thorlo. Customer service representative Susan Graham spoke to her.
SUSAN GRAHAM: And I said, “What’s your question?” She said, “Do your socks wick?” And I said, “Yes, they do.” And I went on and explained how. And I said, “What, what’s happening here?” And she said, “Well, I called two companies, you’re the second one. The first one didn’t call me back.” [Crying] But anyhow, sorry … I’m a mother and a grandmother so this little boy didn’t have any … he had no socks to wear with his foot. He had the shoe, but the socks, he needed to have he socks.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: It’s an experience like I’ve … I would have never in a million years thought I would have had. Umm, I call and she answered the phone, lovely woman, polite woman. And I started to tell her my story and she about breaks down into tears.
VO: The staff at THORLO sprang into action.
BRAD WARREN: Of course we didn’t have a product that fit him, you know, without us doing some modifications to the product itself.
VO: The craftsmen recalibrated a machine, adjusting the settings to create a unique sock to fit Jonathan’s foot. The process took months, but finally Susan Graham was able to ship the product out.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: When the socks showed up and I had no bill in there and I called her and I said, “We got the socks, but there’s no bill.” And she says like the owner of the company, he doesn’t want to charge you for them, it’s a gift to Jonathan.
VO: Seeing Jonathan today, no one would suspect anything different about him. He’s an active boy. He runs and plays without any physical limitations.
RACHEL BIELSTEIN: I sing THORLO’s praises to anybody who asks. Jonathan loves them. Great socks, great company.
BRAD WARREN: You know, I have children myself and, and I would want some day somebody to do that for, for my children, you know, just a, a small thing for me, small thing for Thorlo to do, to be able to, to, to enhance this, this little boy’s life.
VO: Charity and family mean a lot to THORLO, where as improbable as it may sound, selling socks isn’t considered the company’s primary mission.
JIM THRONEBURG: There’s very few people in this company today, all the way down to the janitorial level, that does not know what the common purpose of THORLO is, which is to serve the long-term best food health interest of our loyal consumers.
VO: It was in that spirit the company participated in the study in the diabetic foot; conducted at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, a British doctor, Andrew Boulton.
LYNN THRONEBURG: Thorlo did, did not structure the studies. They did not pay to have the studies done. All, all Thorlo did was donate the socks and then the, the doctors that did the studies structured the studies, they structured the protocols, they recruited the patient population. None of that was done at THORLO, it was all done in medical facilities.
VO: The results of the peer reviewed published research were impressive.
LYNN THRONEBURG: This research basically proved that the fabric that the company makes, you know, has even more important uses than to help you play tennis better or to help you run better. It could actually save your life if you’re a diabetic.
VO: Diabetics often experience foot numbness and can’t feel a small sore or blister as it develops into an ulcer. The padding on the THORLO socks helps to mitigate that by reducing pressure and friction. Subsequent studies on other conditions impacting the foot showed similarly positive results.
ROBERT THOMPSON: I would tell you, I think, knowing Jim, truly he would rather not sell this product again in his life if he could, as a legacy, be known that he was going to improve the foot health of our world.
VO: So Jim turned that vision into a nonprofit cause: Institute for Preventive Foot Health. The Institute does not endorse THORLO, choosing instead to keep an arm’s length relationship to preserve its integrity.
LYNN THRONEBURG: My father, in particular, wants his legacy and the family’s legacy to be beyond the fact that the THORLO Company makes a great sock.
VO: The IPFH is one of many philanthropic causes supported by Jim Throneburg. Whether it’s the gift to a single family facing a personal challenge, or a massive ongoing donation program like the one to support US troops, THORLO’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Back at Carnegie Mellon University, Professor Chris Labash sees the upside of all this charitable giving.
CHRIS LABASH: I think THORLO’s reason for doing this seems to very much be, “This is the right thing to do,” as opposed to this, you know, it’s a good business decision to make. But it turns out that doing the right thing actually is a good business decision. And I think that has served them very well, not only terms of building a user base that is exceptionally loyal, and not just loyal but evangelistic. You know, it’s like, you buy Thorlo socks now and it, you know, you become an ambassador for the company and, you know, that’s the kind of loyalty, that’s the kind of, of … frankly, it’s the kind of marketing you can’t buy.
VO: And it is more critical than ever as THORLO continues to evolve and reach out to a different, but still discerning consumer demographic.
The documented foot health benefits of the sock have prompted the company to focus on more mature, active adults.
BRAD WARREN: The vision of our company right now is to introduce foot health, foot protection to those baby boomers that are having foot issues.
VO: It’s pretty common to experience achy feet by age 50. That’s because the fat pads that used to serve as a protective cushion begin to wear down, reducing the buffer between skin and bone.
CHRIS LABASH: The idea that the sock actually can make a difference here, and if it can make a difference, why wouldn’t you want a sock that, that, that helps your foot. I think that’s a good message, and I think that’s a message that resonates with the 50-plus marketplace.
VO: That was certainly true for 57-year-old Terrance Bernard, who was experiencing severe foot pain. In his case it’s more than the obvious health benefit, it was a financial concern too.
TERRENCE BERNARD: Especially when it comes to employment, I was really, really concerned that I was going to be losing out in my career because of my feet, but the THORLO sock, fantastic.
VO: It is a personal issue here. Most THORLO workers are middle-aged themselves, and easily relate to their maturing customer base.
RICHARD OLIVER: When you get to 50-something, and I am 50-something, I turned 50 this year, you start to experience those limitations and Thorlo actually helps to mitigate the breakdown of those fatty pads, almost as a substitute, allows you to remain young, which is what I want to think about when I think about myself.
SUSAN SMYTH: I am over 50 and when, when we are designing products, I plug myself into this product.
And so we’ll do anything we can, within reason, to make a product that allows the process on their foot to, to not become an impact in their life.
VO: Quality of life is part of the secret to THORLO’s success, not just for the customers but for the staff as well.
SUSAN SMYTH: They always say if you, uh, if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. I guess I’m retired at this age because I love what I do. I look forward to coming to work every day and I look forward to making a difference in the lives of people like me.
ANGIE BASS: We want to also be a leader in the industry as far as how you relate to employees, how you engage employees, how you view your business model just like, you know, putting a consumer over profits. I mean there are not a lot of companies that could get on board with that.
VO: So the mood on the mill floor is warm and friendly. And there are plenty of company perks: free massages for mill workers, and opportunities for personal and professional development. It all plays into Jim Throneburg’s core philosophy.
JIM THRONEBURG: Whatever you want out of life, learn to give that to everybody, all the time, everyday.
LYNN THRONEBURG: My father has some unique philosophies about business that, that go beyond business.
VO: Yet going beyond business is staying true to the spirit of Southern hospitality appears to give the company its critical advantage.
SUSAN SMYTH: I believe you can create the caring and love other places, but I think we probably take it just a little bit beyond maybe what, what someone would somewhere else.
VO: While there are no guarantees of business, the company has set its course. It clings tight to its North Carolina roots, the land, its people and its values; a combination that just might allow it to maintain its solid footing for years to come.
JIM THRONEBURG: Where my whole style of leadership came from is that I was their champion.
ANGIE BASS: Jim in a lot of ways has been my father figure over the years. I mean, I’ve known him for half my life.
DAVID VARSIK: I’ve been at THORLO 18 years.
BRAD WARREN: I’ve been here for 15 years and I still think I’m one of the, the babies in the family.
RICK MATHENA: I’ve been with Thorlo for 22 years.
SUSAN SMYTH: Twenty-three years in December. .
ANGIE BASS: I’ve been here for 22 years.
CARTER THRONEBURG: There are people out there that I’ve known 20 years or more, or know me since I was born.
RICK MATHENA: There are people that have been here for 35 and 40 years.
LYNN THRONEBURG: We’ve got a few people that were here when my grandfather was running it.
DAVID VARSIK; I’m not leaving. I’ll be the guy who shuts the lights out at the end.