Business executive brings front-line experience to first-year students

Paul Thomas

Two moments of clarity may not tell the story a lifetime of success, but they do go far to explain why Paul Thomas is teaching Management 101 at Northern Arizona University.

His students, hopefully, are paying close attention.

At one end of the timeline, more than 30 years ago, Thomas is a third-year forestry student at NAU who realizes he is actually meant for a career in business. At the other, he is ready to downsize, simplify and return to Flagstaff after an enviable ride at the top of the business world.

As a business graduate of NAU, then a member of the NAU Foundation Board and W.A. Franke College of Business Advisory Board, and as a parent of two NAU students (one a recent alum), Thomas clearly had his reasons for joining the business faculty. He had even met his future wife, Jill, as an undergraduate at NAU.

But other forces, from the whims of weather to the vagaries of business, converged to point toward Flagstaff. In short order, damage from a winter freeze drew renewed attention to what had been a longtime holiday home in town, and a turn in a business arrangement brought the picture into even sharper focus.

“I said to my wife, ‘Let’s do something we want to do, not have to do,’” Thomas said, summarizing the rapid sequence of recent events that led to his position in the Executive in Residence program.

Not to say that Thomas is done with business. He’s on the board of several companies, and it takes only a few moments after meeting him to see how he carries the confidence of a decision-making CEO into the classroom—even if the challenges there are not quite what he found in the boardroom.

“When I ran companies I presented to shareholders and employees,” Thomas said. What he encountered then was “a lot of back and forth,” which wasn’t the case with college students, trained since kindergarten to listen and raise their hands when they wanted to speak.

“I told my students on the first day that I’m going to be a very different instructor,” Thomas said. “First, I went to school here. Second, I’ve spent 30 years in industry, so when I talk about something, it’s because I’ve actually lived through it. I’m going to tell them about real-world experiences.”

That approach is the premise of the Executive in Residence program. Two other executive instructors are putting their experiences to work at NAU, one in a course focusing on interdisciplinary issues in engineering and the other assisting with the startup of an MBA in applied management with an emphasis on hospitality.

Thomas’s straightforward, practical style explains both his career choices and his advice for young students. His goal for this semester is to “help students understand what’s available from the College of Business and to understand the basics of business.”

Thomas learned many of those basics after he finished his own formal education. His experience with tech companies, in particular, illustrates the dizzying rewards and devastating lows that business can bring, if you’re willing to embrace risk.

“I was at Apple during the worst of times, when the stock was $10 a share and everyone was sure the company was going to go under,” Thomas said. “I’ve had to fire people, and I’ve been fired. I’ve worked all over the world. None of it would have happened if I didn’t take chances.”

Thomas credits strong mentors for giving him direction, so it’s no surprise that he advocates a similar strategy for today’s students.

“My advice is don’t sit around and wait for the perfect job,” Thomas said. “Take a job, work harder than the average person and find a great mentor.”

Although Thomas and his family are trading Silicon Valley for Flagstaff and the home they’ve maintained here for 20 years, his corporate ties remain strong. He’s involved with two tech companies and is chair of the board of Komaza, a nonprofit that helps families in Kenya establish a sustaining income through growing and harvesting trees.

“I spent 18 months with the founder, building the company up and raising money,” Thomas said. “It’s a good thing to do.” As for the tech companies, “you have to stay in touch with technology or you lose touch with what’s happening,” he said.

At the same time, putting 120 business students in touch with “something real” means changing up the course syllabus and pushing some comfort zones. Thomas said he was surprised that for all their social media savvy, few students had a LinkedIn account. They all do now.

“I’m trying to be more practical,” Thomas said. “I gave them 10 things I wish someone had told me, and I told them, ‘If you do these, I promise you will be hired out of college.’ “