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Ron Thomas: The Man Behind The Scenes





by Elizabeth Miller

Each year the Walking Horse industry comes together for 11 days in
Shelbyville, Tenn. It is a celebration, crowning the breed's world
champion show horses. This event requires an entire year of careful
planning and intense dedication by a large number of people associated
with The Celebration, Inc. The centerpiece of this organization is its
CEO, Ron Thomas.
Ron Thomas is not a “horse person.” He is, however, a “horse show
person,” and he believes deeply that his role as show manager and CEO
revolves around pleasing his customers. Each person who sets foot on
The Celebration show grounds is a customer to Thomas. That includes
every trainer, exhibitor, owner and ticket holder all the way from the
rail side boxes to the top row of the West Grandstand.
Thomas said that his favorite moment during the show is walking out to
center ring at 7:00 p.m. in anticipation of each night's show. He
enjoys his behind the scenes role, setting the stage for the event.
“It's all about the performances and the exhibitors,” Thomas said.
“People come to the show to watch the horses.”
This is certainly true. People come from across the country and around
the globe to witness The Celebration, and Thomas feels this is one of
The Celebration's greatest assets. He quickly notes that the crowd is
what sets this particular show apart from all other premier equine
shows.
“Our fans are energized and enthusiastic,” he said. “They let you know
when things are right and when things are wrong.”
Thomas hails from a humble background growing up on his grandparents'
farm near Antioch, Tenn. His daily duties included all the labor
associated with a working farm...milking, feeding livestock and mucking
stalls.
After the death of his father, while he was still in high school,
Thomas began working two jobs to put himself through college. He earned
his undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University and did
his graduate studies at Sangamon State University.
Ironically, one of those jobs was working as a groom for the legendary
Sam Paschal at City View Stables. For four years, Thomas was
unknowingly looking into his future.
During that time Paschal won two World Grand Championships. The first
was with Ebony Masterpiece in 1962 and again the very next year with
Sun's Delight D. These champions gave Thomas early exposure to two of
the most popular show horses and breeding stallions of all time.
Thomas still carries the influences he took away from his time with
Paschal.
“He was certainly one of the premier trainers of all time, very
charismatic and a true gentleman,” said Thomas. He also noted that
Paschal showed the manners and possessed the tremendous showmanship
that is becoming increasingly rare in today's world. Thomas cited
taking the time to fully park out one's mount as an example. For
Paschal, “the show started when you pulled onto the show grounds. It
wasn't just the time you were in the show ring,” Thomas said.
This level of professionalism still influences Thomas' vision of The
Celebration today. He holds the raw competition between horses in the
highest regard. He feels that the greatest strength of The Celebration
is their independence from the influences associated with the
day-to-day business of the walking horse industry. No one who is
connected to The Celebration, Inc., is allowed to own, show, breed or
train Tennessee Walking Horses.
Therefore, they do not care if their horse wins, only that the best
horse wins. That is a key concept for Thomas. He strives daily to
create a level playing field for each entry. This begins with a strict
adherence to the rules and guidelines set forth by The Celebration.
Although it is not an easy role to play, Thomas is the final enforcer
of those rules. “When you [exhibitors] ride through the gate you're
going to get a fair shake, Thomas said.
“Walking Horse trainers are a lot like coaches,” he continued. “They
are aggressive, energetic and demanding...and have tremendous hearts.
How they finish here is critical to their success and their future.
It distresses me when people can't show back in a championship because
they miss a deadline,” Thomas continued. Although he feels that
sometimes he comes across as aloof when dealing with these types of
situations, he knows he is merely, “holding the line and playing by the
rules.”
Thomas serves at the discretion of the seven member Celebration board
of directors. They are ultimately the final decision makers for all
aspects of the operations of The Celebration, both the horse show and
the corporation. He admits, “they give me direction. I'd be like a ship
without a rudder without them.”
Made up of a group of the leading businessmen in the community, the
board members serve voluntarily without any compensation. They have
inspired Thomas to also give of his time by serving on many community
service related projects including the Chamber of Commerce Board, Our
Town Board and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame Board. He feels a
responsibility to give back to the community whenever possible.
However, Thomas' greatest contribution to his community is perhaps his
own professional success. The Celebration has a huge impact on the
economy in Shelbyville and the surrounding areas.
In two weeks, the show provides an estimated $38 million economic
impact in tourism for the regional economy. The annual figure grows to
an estimated $50 million as a result of other events held throughout
the year in Calsonic arena.
Personal friend, Rev. Mark Ashley said of Thomas, “he is the one
person who has generated the largest impact on this community. It helps
everybody and benefits our hospital, police department...the entire
community.”
For this reason, Ashley nominated Thomas for the role of an Olympic
Torch Bearer for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. The requirements
for nomination were to elevate someone who is behind the scenes and has
made significant contributions to their community. Thomas said the
experience was fabulous.
“It was a very rewarding moment,” he said. The route he ran actually
took him through the streets of The Celebration grounds which was
especially memorable for him.
Thomas joined The Celebration in 1984 after a successful career in the
insurance business. His original title, Executive Secretary of the
Celebration, was eventually changed to Chief Executive Officer to
reflect the true scope of his responsibility. Dr. Joe Lambert, chairman
of the board of directors at the time, first spoke with Thomas in 1982.
Approximately one year later the job was officially advertised in the
Walking Horse Report. At that time, Dr. Dewitt Owen, a well-respected
veterinarian, encouraged him to apply. The rest as they say is history.
During his 15-year career in sales management for two large insurance
companies, he relocated in five different states and seven different
cities. Thomas' personal work ethic and dedication sustained the
constant changes and pressures of moving up the corporate ladder.
Once, while in Jackson, Miss., Thomas was told he would be located
there for two to three years and decided to buy a home. He did so, and
moved in over a long weekend. On Sunday evening he received a call only
to find out he was being transferred again. He left his new home
without making a single payment on it.
People close to Thomas are quick to point out that he is a true
professional.
“He is very organized and wants things done right,” Pat Marsh, a
member of The Celebration board of directors, said. “He is very precise
and always on time. Everything is first class...neater and cleaner for
better fan appeal.”
Rev. Mark Ashley sees Thomas as a man who likes to keep a low profile.
“For someone with such a high visibility job and a loud bark, he is
actually kind of shy,” Ashley said. In spite of this, Thomas, “goes out
and meets with various organizations and people to help stimulate
interest in the Tennessee Walking Horse. He's the only person who can
bring in the big corporations as sponsors, like Ford,” Ashley
continued.
Although Thomas is a dedicated businessman, he is also a proud family
man. He spends much of his free time with his wife, Cathy. They share a
home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., as well as a houseboat docked at the
Gallatin Marina. The boat is appropriately named SHOW TIME. The couple
spends most of their weekends on the boat, and they also try to spend
at least one night per week there.
Thomas is blessed with two children. His daughter Ashley is 23 years
old and working as a real estate broker in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Son Kyle
is 21 years old and a rising junior at Middle Tennessee State
University. Both of Thomas' children have taken on roles at The
Celebration since a young age.
At 13, Ashley began working for Thomas' personal assistant Connie
Nixon during the summer months. Kyle has worked as a ring escort and
ringmaster at Celebration sponsored shows since the age of 11 and has
assisted Nixon in the summer since his sister began her full-time
career.
“As a father, it is heart warming to have children that want to be a
part of what you do,“ Thomas said. He is impressed that his children
are as enthusiastic about the The Celebration as he is. He is proud of
the fact that they love The Celebration.
Thomas also shares a love of professional hockey with his son, Kyle.
They are season ticket holders of the Nashville Predators and are
eagerly awaiting the return of hockey next season.
When asked what is truly important to him in his tenure at The
Celebration, Ron Thomas quickly answers that he wants to be remembered
for his open door policy.
“It warms my heart when people have said, 'he will listen to what you
have to say and he pays attention to it,'” Thomas said.
This holds true for every aspect of Thomas' dual role as show manager
and CEO. He takes the opinions and needs of his customers into
consideration daily and is constantly trying to improve the show and
the facilities to better serve their needs.
“Whenever I go to him with ideas, he's always open to them,” Jane
Moore, long-time Celebration employee, said. “He's very supportive of
my ideas, but if he doesn't think it's good he lets me know and tells
me why.”
Thomas is the first person who has tackled the role of directing The
Celebration, Inc., as a full-time position. Therefore, he has been able
to make incredible progress and a great transition both for the grounds
and the show itself into the 21st century.
The crown jewel of his accomplishments thus far is the construction of
Calsonic Arena. Pat Marsh understands the true importance of the arena.
“It has a huge impact on Shelbyville. We used to just have two shows a
year. Now we have events almost every weekend,” says Marsh. Those
events range from horse shows for other breeds to local performances of
the Nashville Symphony and motor cross events.
Thomas has also been instrumental in the addition of Champions Arena,
the new modern barns, and paving projects designed to create a cleaner
and more inviting show grounds. The newly crowned world champion horses
now have an official winner's circle in the beautiful Celebration
Plaza. Jane Moore cites this as one of Thomas' greatest achievements.
“The grounds are absolutely gorgeous. The new barns and all the
landscaping are so wonderful,” Moore said.
As far as the future goes, there are no major new construction plans
in place other than continuing the progress of replacing the older
barns. The focus lies in upgrading a stadium originally constructed in
1947 and bringing it into the new millennium.
One of the biggest challenges is making the facility more accessible
for the handicapped. Thomas said he feels a need to pay attention to
people with special needs.
“We can't always widen aisles and add ramps everywhere we would like,”
he said. “Now we have people in their 90's attending our show.”
Another challenge Thomas is trying to solve is that of bringing the
residential quarters of the show grounds into the 21st century. At the
suggestion of the residents, he is currently studying the idea of
bringing cable and internet access to the RV parks on the grounds. Also
under consideration are plans to add an additional three bathhouses in
the RV parks.
Funding is the key issue. Thomas implemented The Celebration's
corporate sponsorship program. By recruiting large companies as
sponsors, The Celebration has been able to keep expenses lower for
exhibitors and ticket holders. Yet, there is still money available for
building projects and upgrading technology. Over time this program has
grown into a multimillion-dollar project resulting in approximately
one-quarter of The Celebration's annual revenue.
Thomas has been at the heart of transforming The Celebration into a
multimedia event. The addition of two jumbo projection screens in the
main arena has proved to be a huge success in entertaining the crowd
during the slow moments of the horse show.
Pat Marsh said Thomas is a great promoter of the Tennessee Walking
Horse. In addition, he eagerly desires to find new and inventive ways
to expose the breed and hopes to find ways to market the Tennessee
Walking Horse with the aid of video and television coverage.
In 2004, Thomas received the honor of being selected by The
Celebration board of directors as an inductee into its Hall of Fame.
Its members are an elite group of people who have shaped what The
Celebration is today. They are a mix of people who have served behind
the scenes, given their time and resources or have been a part of the
most memorable moments in Celebration history.
Although Ron Thomas viewed his Hall of Fame induction as, “an
unexpected honor,” his efforts certainly made him the perfect
candidate.
The Celebration has reached new levels of growth and success under his
direction. Anyone who has spent time with Thomas has had the
opportunity to see that he feels the same way about his job as he does
his membership in the Hall of Fame. He simply said, “I am so proud to
be a part of it.”


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