PODCAST: A conversation with Bill Thomason
By: Dean Dorton | January 13, 2021
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Tune in for Justin’s intimate conversation with Bill Thomason, recently retired President/CEO of Keeneland, Thoroughbred racetrack and auction house which sits at the epicenter of the Horse Capital of the World. Bill discusses the importance of leadership humility and succession planning as he hands over the reins to the next President/CEO.
Equine | Unhinged Podcast
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a great episode today. Bill Thomason, the seventh president and CEO of Keeneland, joins us for a fascinating conversation. For those of you who don’t know, Keeneland is a world renowned Thoroughbred racetrack and the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house. My discussion with Mr. Thomason touches on how a commitment to core values can shape your identity as an organization, and how those values become the lens through which you conduct your business and engage your community.
Tune in to hear stories from Mr. Thomason’s storied career in the equine industry, his upbringing in rural Kentucky, and what his goals are for his next chapter.
Bill, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
No, my pleasure. In doing my research, you were named the president and CEO in 2012, and before that you were the CFO, and one of the things that seems to be consistent in your story is this emphasis on a team approach to doing things. One of the tales in, I believe the Keeneland spotlight article, referenced you getting there early before dark and talking to the morning crew. Comment on why that is so important, why this notion of involving everyone that’s in the organization is important to the way that you operate, and just how that’s benefited you throughout your career.
Yeah, you know, it’s one of those things. I guess I’m an insomniac so I always get up early in the morning, sort of always have anyway, but if I look at kind of the why, I guess looking back why that happened, I spent 28 years at Mill Ridge Farm, and during that 28 years is where I really gained my appreciation for what it takes to be successful. Not just in the horse business, but kind of in any business, as I look back. This is agriculture, and I’ve been blessed to be a part of for by entire business career almost, so you know, the horses there, they don’t take vacations. They don’t have holidays.
They’ve got nights and days and times they work, and things they do, but they’ve got to be cared for 24 hours a day, and the people who get there caring for those animals, which is what this business is all about, they’re there before the sun comes up in the morning, and so you know, I’ve always, I guess it came from my father. This is not going to get into storytelling time, but when I do look back, there was, I worked, just the guidance that I guess I did get from my father and from growing up, I worked on a golf course one time, and I was the lowliest person there, who got the worst jobs, obviously, which is appropriate.
And I remember the day that I’m out in the woods, and I was clearing out this whole woods area, you know, in there with bush hogs, and cutting, and cleaning out all these woods, and I look up, and there’s this crazy man out there who’s in his tie and his white shirt, and he’s out with a saw, and he’s got sweat rolling off of him, and his shirt sopping wet, and here’s my father who’s the president of the telephone company in London, and he’s the president of the country club, and during lunch, what he did just as a part of who he was, here he is out there with three or four of us who are in this woods, who that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, and this guy is out there during his lunch hour cutting, and sawing, and full of sawdust and sweat.
And then when it’s over, he goes over and grabs a towel, and has some water, and talks to us and the other guys who are full-time employees, and he gets back in his car and he goes back in the office. That’s the way I grew up, so for me, these people work really hard, and they really care, and they’re up there in the morning, and I couldn’t envision a thought that I wasn’t going to be there whenever people start working. I mean, that’s what we do, and then at the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine that I’m going to leave before they get finished.
The people just know the part. They are everything about this business. They care for the horses, they care for the land. They work so, very hard. They’re such good people, you know, that were involved, and that’s what I enjoy. Part of it’s kind of selfish, you know? This is a part of business, I love the people, and I love being with them, so I love getting out and spending time there.
If you’re interacting with somebody at a, a peer, maybe not in the Thoroughbred industry, but just somebody who’s at the C-suite, the president of an established organization, do you find that what you just shared was, just that focus on people, being with people at all levels, is a common trait across other successful organizations?
It’s all I’ve ever known, because from the beginnings of my accounting career out in audits and doing tax work, you had to be in that part of actually being able to help your client, to be able to establish that relationship, you have to understand them, and in that understanding, that connection is really important, to find out not what’s just important to you, but what’s important to them, and to do whatever you can do to help them be successful.
It’s the same here, you know? If you don’t understand the business, if you don’t understand what goes into making the business successful in the horse industry, there’s so much involved in being successful. It’s got science with breedings and matings, and the care of the horses, and then it’s got art attached to it with being able to know the nuances of the individual horse to bring out the best in the individual horse, and just through that whole process, you have to draw on experiences and knowledge from a lot of different places and put it all together in one cohesive, communicative, collaborative way in order to make sure that you’ve done everything that you can possibly do to be successful.
You know, there’s so many of these things that just become analogies that you talk about, whether it’s in the horse business or it’s in a manufacturing business or it’s in a service business. All those things coming together are what allows you to make sure that you haven’t missed anything, if you wouldn’t.
Yeah, I really appreciated what you said about taking the time to get to know the people, to understand their problems. What comes to mind is this idea of humble leadership. You know, it takes an amount of humility to listen to people’s problems instead of just telling them what to do, or just to be present. There is a consistent theme, if you will, of this humility, of knowing people, taking the time to learn people’s names, taking the time to interact with the morning crew.
Where does that come from? Is that part of your upbringing, or is that something that you’re very conscious of in terms of just displaying it, practicing it, each day?
I think it’s a combination of kind of both, you know? It’s the way I was brought up, the people that I’ve been with that have been influential, that was my father and his, the way he talked to people at every level. When I was growing up, I had a chance to travel with him all over the state, so small towns and communities, and I saw the way he communicated with people.
And so, I don’t know how much of that goes back to the experiences that you have whenever you are growing up, but then for me it’s just always, I don’t know, I enjoy it. I enjoy people. I enjoy the stories. I enjoy the differences in all of us, and how we think, and how we interact, and I’ve just never thought I was the smartest person in the room, and by knowing—not thinking—knowing that I’m not the smartest person in the room, I’m going to be just a little bit ridiculous to not listen to those people who I do know what they’re talking about, so that together we make good decisions.
I spent my life, I guess, with the thought of the “we.” I just think that is the most important thing that can happen to any organization. We’re in the horse capital in the world. This place sits in the epicenter, in the very center, of the horse capital of the world, and this is the thing with this signature industry in Kentucky that is known around the world, and the thing that I found and we stress in this organization, our team, and that’s this humble organization that we’ve got, the respect that this organization has around the world is truly humbling in itself.
We’ve got a tremendous responsibility. People who count on us. They count on us for their livelihoods. We’re the largest and most important Thoroughbred auction house in the world. People count on us for their success at the sale. The first horse in the ring to the last horse in the ring means something to somebody, from race number one to race number 12 on a Bluegrass Stakes day, the claiming races, the allowance races, they matter. They mean something to a family, and to people’s careers, and they mean something to a horse, and the safety of the horse.
They mean something to a rider who’s entrusted with riding that horse. Our job is to make them as successful as they can possibly be in every aspect of being involved in this industry, so if all those things, when you really think about what we’re doing and the responsibility of this organization, and that every single person here has to be operating at the highest level in order for that success to happen, because if any one part of this organization breaks down, it’s going to mean something to somebody. It has the chance of taking away from their chance of success.
We’re not going to let that happen.
That’s very powerful. It’s such a contrast from the bubbles, the bubble economy, these things that come and go, this need to, or I guess the self-help industry, to reinvent yourself every three years. It’s a commitment to a path. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to tweak it, but you still have your pillars that, as society changes, as the community changes, you change with it to better engage to community, but you’re still devoted to the team and to the community, and to the spectacle that is Keeneland.
That’s it. My wife always said, we laugh about it a lot, when you talk about, hearing my finance background, I’ve got to have a plan. I’ve got to have that. Now, the plan can change, but that still doesn’t mean you don’t start out with a plan. No one, having an idea where you want to go, and some thought of how you’re going to get there, and then it’s always a journey to figure out how to get to the end of it.
Exactly, but knowing what you want or what you think the end will look like helps you get out the door.
You know, at this point in your career, you’re in a transition within your career at Keeneland, what’s been your thought process as you interact with your peers within the organization, or those who report up to you? How’s your interaction changed over the past 12 months knowing that you’re entering this transition, versus what it was three to five years ago?
Well, first off, this is supposed to be natural. You know, a succession plan, and I look back to when did I start thinking about that, and you know, I never had a date set. It wasn’t going to be when I turn 65, it wasn’t going to be, there wasn’t some point. It wasn’t when the Breeders’ Cup was over. It was when I knew that the time was going to be right, so within our organization, succession’s really important, and succession planning, and everybody here knows, listen, we’re not building little fiefdoms in this place. Really, the only way you can get in trouble is if somehow you’re not here and something’s not working, and nobody can make it work because you’re the only one who knows what’s supposed to happen, and you’re the only one, because you protected it, who hasn’t prepared for some eventuality.
There’s where you get in trouble. So succession is a natural thing here, and we have done that extraordinarily in a number of places, so consequently that’s what’s happening and what the evolution is here at Keeneland. Shannon Bishop Arvin, who’s getting ready to be the eighth president and CEO of Keeneland, is steeped in history and the traditions of Keeneland, a tremendous background, tremendous accomplishments personally for herself and what she’s already done, and the reputation that she’s already developed.
Her father actually was one of my first mentors when I started in the business in 1980, Buddy Bishop. He was an attorney at Stoll Keenon Ogden at the time, was a great friend, was my confidant. He was counsel for Mill Ridge Farm the whole time I was there, so I’ve known Shannon since she was a kid, and I watched her grow and watched her develop and watched her and her however many years she was at Stoll Keenon before this, and she’s earned it.
She deserves it. All these things that I have described, that’s her, so part of what also that everyone in this institution, when they do come to that time, when they know it’s time, and when it is time for them to retire, you should be the most proud whenever you leave and nobody know that you stepped away, and we have had some people on these grounds that have shown that kind of leadership. They’re always a part of this family. People who’ve retired from here still come to our family picnics, and they’re out here back in the maintenance area sitting there chatting with the guys still, and the people, so it’s still home.
It’s always going to be home, but we take pride in the team for what they’ve accomplished up to this point, and then also take pride in that transition of leadership and knowing that this place doesn’t miss a beat, and that’s one of if not the most gratifying things that I have right now, is knowing the leadership that’s getting ready to take over for Keeneland in this coming year.
There can’t be any better proof of a successful career than setting up the people who come behind you to also have successful careers.
Any thoughts to what your next chapter’s going to be?
I’ve described it in kind of four words. Nathan, Nellie, Nolan, and Hunter. I’m done. I have had a fabulous working career, and I’ve been at the top of Mill Ridge Farm with Alice Chandler was just the, what I thought, and it was, the experience in the horse business of a lifetime, with a woman of incredible integrity and intelligence and all these values that we talk about inside business and inside Keeneland came from her, and I was done before this, and when I came here, CFO, I had no visions of doing what I’m doing right now. That was not a part of the grand plan that had happened, but I have now, I have the best job in the world, and the thought that I’d have the fortune to have a career like I’ve had.
Barbara, my wife of 42 years, three beautiful daughters, four grandkids, if somebody can find something better than this, let me know. I just have, I’ve never seen it, I don’t have the vision to know what it could possibly be, so I really look forward to supporting Shannon, helping her even though she doesn’t need it. I look forward to being a fan, getting to be out here up in those boxes and out on that apron, and bringing those four grandkids here, and making sure that they get to experience this industry in hopefully the same way that I’ve been able to do it, and love it, and enjoy it, and our community.
So I’ve got a lot of fun things ahead, in front of me.
Fantastic. Well-deserved. Thank you so much for coming on, and you know, I wish you nothing but the best for the next chapter, and I hope to see you at the track.
That’s great, Justin. Thanks. And if you’re here, you’re going to be seeing me.
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