May 18 2011 12:00 AM
If you're in the military, one of the physical exercises you're trained to do is climb a thick rope with knots about every foot. Tom Christy knows the ropes well. He's climbed them dozens of times. Now, at the age of 81, as he looks back at his career and his family, he is-in today's vernacular-a happy camper.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Born in 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio, right at the beginning of the depression made life a little harder. Kids growing up in that era didn’t know they were poor because all their neighbors were generally in the same position. The one thing it did do was toughen them up. You developed street smarts relatively quickly, because that’s what it took to survive.

In 1954 , Christy graduated from DePauw University and went on to Indiana University Business School where he hoped to get his MBA. But he ran out of money, dropped out of school and looked for a job. He accepted one with Armstrong Cork as sales manager. After three years he left for a sales position at the Barrett division of Allied Chemical and eventually became general manager.

It seemed like Christy moved frequently from job to job, and with each job he seemed to move to another state. He and his wife, Mary, have five children, each one born in a different state.

Christy took a job at R & G Sloan as vice president of sales and marketing. He was hired with the thought that he would be the right person to assume the presidency of the company when the then current president retired. Instead he got fired. When asked why, he remarked, “Because I was stupid. I didn’t realize I was being interviewed for the presidency. I guess I didn’t say the right things.”

So, after 25 years in corporate life, being vice president of three companies, president of Uni-Bell and Plastic Pipe Institute, and with very little money in the bank, Christy decided to put down roots in the then vibrant Southern California area. In 1977, at the age of 47, a savings of $1,500 and a small line of credit, he started his own manufacturer’s representative sales organization catering to the irrigation market.

“I liked the business, I liked the people, it fit my style,” he said. Christy’s territory was Southern California, Arizona, and Southern Nevada. The first six months he was a rep, he earned $2,200 and for the first 12 months he made $64,000, and at the end of his first calendar year Christy earned $94,000. Although, like in any business, there are costs, Christy said, “It was the most money I ever made.”

During his first year as a manufacturer’s representative, he picked up a few lines and was fired from some others. “As a rep you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer,” said Christy. “Sometimes they expect more than the territory is capable of producing, other times it could be that you built up enough sales so they hire an in-house salesperson to work directly for them. And sometimes it could just be a personality conflict.”

In 1978, while looking for additional lines to represent, Christy asked the distributors he called on what they thought was needed in the market. One distributor told him there was a need for a good high quality solvent cement.

Leaving no stone unturned, Christy did his research and introduced his ‘Red Hot Blue Glue.’ It’s not easy swimming against the tide, but that is exactly what Christy was doing. “Introducing something new, especially with no funds to promote it, is a very difficult task,” he said. “Here I am introducing the highest priced, best performing solvent cement in the market. I was lucky that I had great personal relationships with some distributors and they trusted me.”

The business became a ‘family affair’ as Tom and Mary’s five children became active in the business.

Jon, the eldest son was working with his father until he went off to school. Jon received his MBA in financial statistics from the University of Chicago and went back into the family business. By this time Christy’s had moved the business out of their family home and into office and warehouse space.

One of the lines they represented was a tool line. When they were fired from that line, Jon decided to market his own tool accessories line. Christy’s now has its own line of copper fittings, drainage and filter fabrics, marking identification products, filling a 250 page catalog.

What started out as a manufacturer’s representative sales company has grown into much more.

As each of the five children, Jon, Jenny, Sarah, Tommy, and Amy finished school, it was expected that they would eventually join the company. Jenny was the first daughter; she attended Southern Utah State College and still works in the business. Tommy got his degree from Sacramento State and works in the rep side of the business. Sarah was the last sibling to join the business. She graduated from Arizona State and received her MBA from the University of Southern California. Sarah entered the business world ending up at Nestle when she was tapped on the shoulder and invited to join the family business. Sarah works as a product manager.

Amy is the only family member not involved in the business. She is passionate about helping other people and is a counselor for drug addicts.

Mary developed some health issues and Tom took semi-retirement about ten years ago. He passed the baton to their eldest, Jon.

“We’re a family, and we’ll stay a close knit family, but we run the business as a business,” said Jon Christy. “Although we’re all equal shareholders and receive equal dividends, the salary we receive is commensurate with the position we hold. In addition to our family, we have an outside advisory board and we meet quarterly.”

As Tom Christy becomes a legend in the industry, he can sit back, not only to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but to enjoy watching his children build a $100 million dollar a year company on the foundation he fought so hard to establish.