Two delightfully unique aspects of last Thursday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class were the guest speaker—retired entrepreneur and local philanthropist John Twomey—and an insightful poetry reading.
While Mr. Twomey is “a regular” in that he speaks to the class every year, he is anything but regular in terms of experience and character. In addition, he adds something new to his fascinating presentation each year. One of the additions to his most recent visit was a reading of Robert Frost’s classic “The Road Not Taken” (see: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536). He shared this poem with the class in the context of the imperative of making choices; of making the right choices—for you as an individual—and how the right choice is often not what others are either doing or expect you to do. The last three lines of the classic work read as follows.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I feel confident in saying that (1) John Twomey—a world class track athlete, World War II veteran, six-decade entrepreneur, and local philanthropist now 93 years young—repeatedly chose to take the road less traveled, and (2) that doing so has made all the difference in his extraordinary life.
I now leave it to Midwest Entrepreneur class member Tanner Matlick to tell the rest of the “John Twomey story”; at least what little of it that was—and can be—shared in one class period. I encourage those interested in the more non-entrepreneurial aspects of Mr. Twomey’s life to watch the following YouTube video of a presentation he made in November of 2014 at the “Hearing From Our Very Own” annual luncheon sponsored by West Central Leadership, Inc. in Monmouth, Illinois: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I1Ml10LO9E).
Our guest speaker for class this past Thursday was a man that is pretty well known in the local community; not only for his entrepreneurial work in farming and the grain storage industry but for all aspects of his amazing life.
John Twomey was raised in the small town of Roseville Illinois on a small farm. After serving for some time in the Military, Twomey returned to his small town roots and was immediately faced with a significant life choice that he had to make. Twomey was a world class track runner who had a good chance to make the U.S. Olympic track team. However, his father was in need of help with the family farm because his manager quit without any notice. Twomey gave up his track career and pursued a career in farming when he came home to help his father with the family farm. From that day forward Twomey was motivated to be the best worker he could be. That motivation eventually turned a small farm that started with one very small grain elevator into one of the biggest and most successful grain storage businesses in the United States. Because of Mr. Twomey’s hard work and innovative and unconventional approach to running the business, during his 66 years with the firm, its grain storage capacity increased from one barge of grain to 900 barges (at the time it was sold to Consolidated Grain & Barge several years ago).
Believe it or not a fire that burnt down one of Twomey’s grain elevators in 1956 is what lead him to the idea of building grain storage in a different and more efficient way. Twomey came up with the idea to build flat structures to store the grain (instead of conventional tall round structures). These flat structures were 240 ft. wide for air and ventilation purposes and stretched anywhere between 500ft – 1100 ft. long. This innovative new style of storing made the grain easy to preserve for a longer period of time and in turn made his grain much higher in quality. With this newfound success it wasn’t plausible for Twomey to remain a small family farmer. Due to his new innovation with his new model of grain storage buildings he was forced to expand.
This expansion led him to a location along the Mississippi River on the outskirts of a town called Gladstone. Gladstone was literally the perfect place for a grain storage facility that shipped its corn via barge. It was perfect for many reasons. The water was deep, it was right below Lock and Dam 18, and there was lots of space to build his massive grain storage warehouses. Twomey did exactly that. When it was all said and done Twomey had built 8 massive grain storage warehouses in Gladstone that housed around 50 million bushels of grain.
With this expansion came the hiring of many new workers at the Twomey Company. Mr. Twomey knew the type of employees he wanted in his company and he hired people based on character and attitude. While knowledge of grain storage was a “must have,” Twomey felt that it didn’t matter if you knew everything there was to know about grain. Instead, to him, it all ultimately came down to how good of a person you were. One of Mr. Twomey’s most successful hires came when he hired a man by the name of Ralph Lafary who was the mastermind behind the engineering and construction of the custom-built conveyer systems that were needed to accommodate Twomey’s massive flat grain storage structures.
Twomey was convinced that in order to get the most out of his employees he had to treat them right. Mr. Twomey created generous pension plans, profit sharing plans, and bonus plans based on hours and years of service for his employees. These programs served as incentives for his employees to be the best they can be. The employee retention rate for his lucrative business was very high.
Having great employees was one key to John Toomey’s success but the other great key to success was constantly finding ways to keep the cost of their business down. The buildings were constructed in the most efficient way with as little material as possible. The grain was stored in a way that allowed these more cost-efficient buildings to be strong enough to hold the huge volume of grain that was stored inside. Twomey even realized that by storing the grain outside before building storage facilities was a way to get ahead of the curve. Mr. Twomey was an entrepreneurial genius that knew exactly what he wanted and knew exactly how he was going to do it.
Over the years Mr. Twomey has been through a lot. Sixty-six years in the grain storage and grain selling business isn’t always a walk in the park. Twomey had to build his line of credit over a long period of time with hard work, determination, and positive attitude towards working in general. Even though things didn’t always go his way—take, for example, the fire, storms, floods, and not being financed for a 3-day period once in the “busy” season—he stayed the course and made difficult decisions that took the business to great heights. More importantly, however, these tough decisions made John Twomey the man he is today.
John Twomey served as an inspiration to us all by showing us that if we follow our heart and if we work hard enough at something success will follow. John Twomey changed the grain storage game for the better. He is a great innovator and a great man who we can learn a lot from.