Adam Thomas graduated first in his collegiate class and had nearly a dozen good job opportunities across the eastern U.S.
Ultimately, however, he created his own opportunities back home in Conemaugh Township - and succeeded. The 41-year-old is owner of three area businesses and employs a total of 60 people, approximately half of them seasonal. He still remembers his invitations to work for companies from Boston to New Orleans after receiving his master's in business from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“I think it's amazing,” Thomas said of his return to the area. “The thought of Johnstown never crossed my mind. “I thought all the opportunity (was) elsewhere,” he added. “Instead we worked to create our own opportunity here.”
His three businesses are: Thomas Smoked Meats, a deer processing company near Tire Hill; A. Thomas Management Co., which prepares daily meals for employees at DRS Technologies in Richland Township; and the Thomahawk Deli & Grill in Davidsville. He also serves as food services director for his alma mater, Conemaugh Township Area School District.
Thomas said he enjoys running small-town businesses, being committed to his community and building solid relationships with fellow parents and students alike. But his professional career actually began on the other side of the mighty Monongahela.
His first post-college gig was a food service director at an Ohio university campus. There, he said, he typically worked 100 hours a week. According to Thomas, the money was good, but his marriage and new baby girl meant different priorities.
“We had a 10-week-old girl and I thought, `You know what, I'm going home,’” he said.
Moving back to Somerset County wasn't easy at first. He said he initially worked part-time picking stainless steel for minimum wage at a local manufacturing plant.
“It was a little humbling,” he said. “(But) I was confident.”
Thomas soon began working as food service instructor at a local prison. This lasted for about a year before landing a job in 1997 as the food services director at his alma mater, the Conemaugh Township Area School District. And just two years later - despite having no formal training as a butcher - he founded Thomas Smoked Meats.
“I taught myself how to clean the meat off the bone,” he said, adding that his self-training began as a boy when he would hunt with his father.
According to Thomas, this business picked up over the years to become one of the biggest deer processing companies in the tri-county area. He said he and his employees receive approximately 1,500 deer per year in addition to thousands of pheasants, ducks and other birds. The company specializes in creating a wide variety of beef, pork and poultry products.
“We are really meticulous,” he said.
In the following years he took on other ventures, including a retail store in Richland and the A. Thomas Management Co. He left his school food service director position in 2005, but returned to this post about four years ago.
When his retail venture faltered in 2009, Thomas opted not to renew his lease. Instead he took a chance on establishing the Thomahawk, a family-friendly restaurant in Davidsville.
He said the restaurant business - and location - was a better fit.
“It's been very successful here,” he said, noting that he has a bachelor's in hotel and restaurant management from IUP. “I've found a niche and I think it's been real well-received.”
According to Thomas, his businesses have had very little turnover. He said he's been fortunate to hire key people that he can trust.
“That makes it a pleasant experience,” he said.
In his free time, Thomas said he enjoys spending time with his family: wife, Linda, and school-age daughters Kate, Hannah, Grace and Madison. He also makes time for swimming, traveling, golfing, archery hunting and fishing.
As for his businesses, Thomas plans to try to more effectively manage and grow them when possible. He quoted humorist Will Rogers: “Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”
And he said that while running a business has become more difficult over the years due to the slow economy, increasing taxes and government regulations, there are still opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Laurel Highlands.
“I think a lot of people think all the good ideas are taken,” he said. “If you find something you love to do, then you can make it work for yourself.”
But he also noted: “It's not the easy way out.”
The wooded hills of Somerset County aren't Boston or New Orleans, but more importantly - to Thomas - they have always been home.
“In the end it worked out very good. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”