From Survivor to Thriver: Tom Whatley
Founding Fathers of the Truss Industry, Part 6
Tom Whatley, founder of Eagle Metal and former CEO of ABO Truss, is a man who has had a profound impact on the component manufacturing industry. Tom started his career in the industry in East Texas as a teenager pushing lumber carts at a truss plant started by his dad, Otis Whatley, and uncle. The truss plant was a modest 50’ x 100’ building with a dirt floor except for the triangular truss-shaped concrete slab beneath an original Mark 6 Mono-Press jig. It was located 60 miles southeast of Dallas in the Cedar Creek Reservoir area. Within five years, they had outgrown the original facility and decided to build a bigger plant in Gun Barrel City. Tom helped his dad build trusses until he graduated high school and followed in Otis’s footsteps by joining the military and serving in Italy with the United States Air Force as an intelligence gatherer for the National Security Agency.
Embracing Family and a Bright Future
In 1973, Tom completed his service in the Air Force and returned to Dallas. At the time, Dallas was at the forefront of the historic 2.5 million housing units that were started that year, and the construction business was booming. The excitement felt by a 21-year-old who was on his way to working in that industry could hardly have been more palpable. It was then that Tom fully understood the potential for his dad’s business and couldn’t wait to be a part of its growth.
As Tom began to manage the family’s truss plant, he also embarked on a course of study at East Texas State University. As he gained more business knowledge on the way to earning his marketing degree, he continued to be intrigued by the potential for their truss business. Yet he also was considering a job offer from high flying Lanier Business Systems. At this pivotal moment, Tom sought the opinion of his marketing professor while expressing his confidence in the bright future of his truss business. Without hesitation, she responded, “if you have an itch, scratch it.” That one comment steered Tom towards his life’s work.
Matching Sales and Capacity
After Tom’s graduation from ETSU in 1978, Tom’s brother Bart joined him, and together they purchased the business, and renamed it ABO Truss Company, from their father. They ran two roof truss jigs with DePauw, Clary, and Metra-Cut saws, doing only $250,000 per year but being equipped to do much more. To fill that capacity, Tom made numerous calls on builders in the prosperous Dallas market and struck up strong relationships with companies such as Paragon, Great Southwest, and Lincoln Properties, all apartment builders and major players in the market at that time.
Tom secured a 200-unit project, the first of many, and he supplemented the apartment work with single-family work from around the Dallas-Fort Worth region. As a result of those efforts, he doubled his sales by the end of his first year of prospecting, and then again by the end of the second, on the way to an amazing $10 million in sales in 1983. During this run, Tom was adamant about on-time and complete deliveries, cementing ABO’s reputation in the marketplace, and securing partnerships with larger single-home builders such as Fox and Jacobs, U.S. Homes, and Pulte.
Pictured left to right: Elmer Hubbar, Tom Whatley, Herb Tison, Art DePauw and Bart Whatley
In a time before design software, ABO was unique in that it provided builders detailed truss profiles and layouts by incorporating a birds eye view, looking at each structure from the top to the bottom and transferring all of the loads to the foundation. Its innovative approach helped builders become more efficient and also created simplified solutions such as eliminating the need to put more expensive structural headers over interior openings. ABO was doing with pencil and paper what would later become software programs for truss layout and manufacturing. It was because of this forward thinking and understanding of builders’ needs that companies such as On-Line Data collaborated with ABO to better serve the industry.
Contributing to ABO’s success was the quadrupling of oil prices since Tom had taken the helm, and the enactment of a highly favorable federal tax reform act in 1981. By 1983, ABO’s production was finally beginning to max out, as the truss yard remained filled to capacity, and the need for a new facility became acute. But Tom insisted that its replacement be no ordinary plant. He staked out a level site just north of their existing plant in Mabank, Texas and consulted the best minds in the industry to outfit it. Among these innovators were Elmer Hubbard, a mechanical engineer with Klaisler Manufacturing, Herb Tison, a plant layout consultant, and Art DePauw with DePauw Saw Company.
Building Plants and People
The Whatley brothers would manage most of the construction work themselves, other than contracting with a metal building company to erect their 240’ x 300’ plant’s structure. By leveraging their family’s extensive building expertise and resources, they were able to complete construction of the entire complex in less than nine months. With the building complete, they proceeded to fill their football field-sized space with an unprecedented array of new equipment and systems, including four DePauw saws, four lumber trains, six Mono-Press roof lines, two multi-head Glide Aways, two Beaver floor machines, and one 90’ Clary Roll-A-Span. With the addition of the Gun Barrel City plant’s equipment, and a well-conceived layout, their capacity was unrivaled in the Dallas market. In addition, their truss yard was geared to efficiently handle and transport its output, with a sea of numbered poles against which truss orders were vertically stacked, 53-foot drop deck trailers, and a truck dispatch building where optimal loads and efficient deliveries were maintained.
At its opening, this state-of-the-art facility was one of the largest single site truss plants in the world, drawing attendees from all over the United States and several foreign countries. Tom’s vision and ambition were contagious, attracting some highly qualified people anxious to join ABO’s team. Most of them came from the surrounding area and worked their way up the ranks. Jim Thomas, a Baptist preacher in need of supplemental income, joined the night shift in the cutting department and later moved into the office as a draftsman and then into sales. There he gained excellent multi-family design skills and sales experience that without a doubt aided his later rise to the presidency of Trussway. Likewise, Don Groom started in the Gun Barrel City plant as a roof truss assembler, ultimately becoming a crew leader in the new plant running a Mark 8 roof truss station. Groom eventually ascended to VP of Operations at Stark Truss, managing its multiple locations and today is CEO of TrussWorks.
Tom also realized that he couldn’t manage the huge facility in Mabank the same way he did in Gun Barrel City, so he brought in experienced marketing, design, and sales talent from his suppliers. Notable among these was Danny Conaway, ABO’s Hydro-Air salesman, who perfected the art of multi family takeoffs and sales, a practice Danny took with him after leaving ABO and continues unabated today after 40 years!
Equally essential were the systems that Tom developed to manage the heavy workload. By color coding layouts and the corresponding ends of trusses, they organized jobs on the shop floor, ensuring that deliveries were complete and framing was expedited. By doing time studies, the company was able to perform Houlihan-type plant scheduling that enabled ABO to produce 200-unit apartment projects in just three days, all while blending in single family jobs. By presenting jobsite packages that resembled an architect’s plan set, ABO cemented its status as a sought-after supplier.
The Whatley’s state-of-the-art Mabank truss manufacturing facility, circa 1985.
Transitioning to Plates and Software
While overseeing all these notable feats, Tom waded into a business that nearly all CMs declined to pursue: the production of connector plates. Consequently, he divided the design work in accordance with the plate usage, using On-Line Data for the design of roofs that incorporated ABO’s own plates and Hydro-Air’s plates for engineering floors. While taking on this different though complementary business, Tom added to the depth of his oversight, and also diversified his opportunities, which soon would become a godsend.
Just as ABO’s production peaked, a trauma triggered by the Feds unsettled the nation and devastated the Texas housing market. When the 1985 Tax Reform Act became law, it drastically reversed the tax incentives of the 1981 legislation that had spurred so much growth around Dallas. This pushed mortgage rates above 15%, cutting off the demand for housing and drying up the supply of capital available for construction. Simultaneously, the housing collapse was exacerbated in Texas due to the 60% drop in oil prices over the winter of 1985-86. Dozens of lending institutions called in loans and drained the capital of businesses like ABO, while regulators prevented banks from assuming their debt. Remarkably, by cutting staff, reducing expenses and taking on out-of-state work, ABO survived, actually realizing a three percenti increase in gross income in 1986. However, by the spring of 1987, unscrupulous banking practices forced ABO to discontinue production.
Like many industry leaders affected by the housing market, Tom had to start over by selling truss plates in a down market against increasingly larger competitors. He called his new company Eagle Metal Products, inspired by his favorite Bible verse Isaiah 40:31, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they will walk and not be faint.” Tom knew the task before him would not be easy, but the strength of his faith and support from his family kept him encouraged.
His faith was again affirmed when, in July 1987, he noticed an ad for the sale of a truss plant in Midland, TX that was well stocked with equipment. Tom’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and he wagered that no other truss savvy person would travel to the remote reaches of Texas to purchase a truss plant in a moribund market. Fortunately, he was right and was able to acquire all the equipment at a lower than market price and then immediately resell it to people in the industry needing affordable equipment. By doing this, Tom became instrumental to many startup truss companies that had grown to be some of the best and largest to date, notably American Truss (Jack Dermer) and Cussewago Truss (John Otto). For the next four years, he traveled six days a week selling used truss equipment and plates, steadily gaining customers and building momentum for his new venture.
Starting the ascent to success in the plate business without software was a formidable challenge, but Tom’s unshakable faith and perseverance served him well. He knew his customers’ needs better than most, having walked in their shoes for many years, and he developed deep and lasting relationships across the industry that enabled him to consistently grow Eagle’s capabilities. His knowledge of delivery of and site damage to trusses led to the development of the Field Repair Press (FRP), of which there have been 4,000 units sold. Through partnerships with existing suppliers and by developing his own in-house capabilities, Tom was able to eventually gain parity with his competitors. Today, Eagle Metal employs top notch personel from all over the country and its software suite continues to impress component manufacturers with seamlessly integrated 3D structural modeling, production, management and support. Tom’s industry experience, perseverance and leadership style set the foundation for the exponential growth Eagle has experienced over the last decade and although his son-in-law, Baird Quisenberry, now serves as the company’s CEO, Tom’s influence and expertise will continue to help guide Eagle’s trajectory towards continued success.
Succeeding with Humility and Respect
Throughout his entire industry tenure, Tom has exhibited the utmost humility and respect for those around him. If you ever tour the recently expanded Eagle Metal manufacturing plant or its brand new Dallas engineering offices, you’ll see a sign hanging on the wall that reads, “Warrior Spirt. Servant Heart.” These words exemplify the culture Tom has developed and the example he has set for his employees and others. As Don Groom attested, “I always knew that he cared about me and all the employees. Every now and then he would come out on the floor and start pressing trusses and just work a few hours with us. It meant a lot to me and the people in every plant I have managed.” Groom and Conaway both agreed that along with his impressive personal skills, Tom’s “out-of-box” thinking was what saved him and enhanced the entire truss industry.
Tom rebounded from the depths of the Texas depression to successfully build the only independently owned connector plate and design software company in the nation. But if you asked Tom how he did it, he would humbly give all the credit to “the good Lord and a lot of great people”.
About the Author: Joe Kannapell began his career in the truss industry with Hydro-Air Engineering over 50 years ago. His final promotion to Senior VP of Sales at MiTek reflected his life-long commitment to serving component manufacturers and bettering the industry. In retirement, Joe isn't slowing down. One of his passions is to record and preserve the history of our industry. This article is the sixth installment in his series about some of the industry's founding fathers that he knew well. If you'd like to contribute to this effort, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.