Growing up in Kerala in the 1950s and 1960s, Thomas Joseph learned the importance of family helping each other build for a better future. As much as he loves America now, the cultural difference between the United States and India was as different as night and day.
“In India, when you grow up, you don’t think about kids reaching the age of 18 and moving out… none of that,” he noted.
“Every parent wants their children to do better than they did. Even the people who could not afford it, they would sacrifice their standard of living or brokerage their house to send the kids to school. The poorest of people — people who lived in huts — didn’t have money but they would work day or night or they would pawn their ornaments or property to pay for the tuition.”
For Thomas, it meant studying history, psychology and economics at K.E. College in Mannanam before joining the Indian Air Force in 1967 for an eleven-year stint. He worked in wireless communication, a position that required strong English skills.
“The medium of the Air Force in India is English and I was pretty good at it,” Thomas recalled. “I had an uncle who was kind of a mentor to me. He helped me think about higher education and he helped me become fluent in English. He subscribed to an English paper and made me read it every day. He wanted me to circle ten new words every day from the newspaper and then I had to look them up in the dictionary and he would quiz me at times.”
The hard work paid off and boosted his Air Force career. It also allowed him to read many English novels by Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason series), Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. Though he never intended to be in America one day, he certainly absorbed a lot about its language and culture.
While India had its fair share of charms, it also had a few drawbacks. When Joseph grew up, he was expected to participate in a traditional arranged marriage, so he kept his relationship with a nursing school student named Elizabeth secret from his parents.
“During my vacations from the Air Force when I would go home, my father would arrange for me to sit with different girls from different families, but we never arranged anything,” Thomas recalled. “My cousin then played the role as marriage broker. She went and proposed the idea to both of the families, not telling them that we were already seeing each other. That worked.”
The couple was married in 1972. However, within three years, Elizabeth moved to Oregon for a nursing job while Thomas remained in the Air Force in India with his young son until he could earn an honorable discharge.
Then, in 1978, he came to America to join her. Joseph had strong English skills, of course, and he had even taken special classes in airline ticketing back when computers utilized punch cards. Unfortunately, he was trained on machines that had already become obsolete in the states.
Needing to find work of some kind, Thomas applied to work at the convenience store chain Plaid Pantry. In five years there, his hard work and astute business management skills enabled him to be promoted to store manger, then supervisor of about 20 stores, and, finally, operations manager for almost half of the company’s stores, which was close to 50 at that time.
“My district had always been among the best in revenue, profitability, quality of the store, friendliness, etc.,” he recalled. “But I wanted to do something on my own.”
While searching for a business to invest in, Thomas came across drycleaning. In 1983, he opted to audit a plant named Alpine Cleaners for three months before purchasing it. Two years later he would rename it as Thomas Joseph Personalized Dry Cleaning.
“I’m a big believer in personalization of anything that you do. Good or bad, I want to be the person responsible for that,” he explained.
Putting his name on the business ensured that he would work as hard as he could to make it succeed.
“I have a really big passion for detail and a passion for excellence,” he said. “No matter what I do, I take pride in it. When I took over the store, for the first ten years, I would come to the store at five in the morning until nine or ten o’clock at night. A couple of nights I would stay until two or three in the morning. When I am doing something... unless that job is complete, I will feel restless. It will bother me until it becomes done.”
Restless is definitely a good word to describe Thomas who is perpetually busy. Some friends joke that he’s only a part-time drycleaner because he works full-time in community service.
Over the years he has been a long-time local Chamber of Commerce board member and was once honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also long served Rotary International in various capacities, including president and membership chair. Additionally, he was a founding director of Town Center Bank and was president of the Providence Milwaukie Hospital Foundation.
He’s also been quite active in the drycleaning industry over the years, including a stint on the Oregon Dry Cleaners Association board for about a decade. He was honored by the association as Dry Cleaner of the Year back in 1986.
“Instead of just being a drycleaner, being involved in the community keeps me challenged. It keeps me inspired and keeps me motivated to do things,” he said. “I don’t get complacent. I don’t get in a comfort zone.”
There is little danger that Thomas will ever slip into a comfort zone; for starters, he’d have to actually slow down in order for that to happen.
Yet, even when he isn’t spending time with his family, running his business or helping the community, the man who will soon be old enough to retire later this year continues to train for half-marathons (about 13 miles).
Over the years he’s actually competed in about a dozen 26-mile full marathons, including ones in Seattle, Las Vegas, Portland, Chicago, New York and Boston.
“For the Boston Marathon, you can’t just enter it. You have to be running in a qualified time,” he noted. “My best time for a marathon was three hours and 16 minutes. I did that in 2006.”
Part of the reason Thomas took up running in the first place was to prove something to himself.
“My family, hereditarily, has every sickness on both my parents’ sides... stroke, diabetes, blood pressure, heart problems, cholesterol. Another setback was my brother, who is seven years younger than me. He had a heart attack when he was 42,” he explained. “So, I was determined to be the exception to the rule… to be healthy. I wanted to be able to do the things I wanted to do.”
One thing that Thomas has long wanted to do stems from his Indian heritage: it has always been important to him that his three children have a chance at an excellent education, no matter the sacrifice.
“I am very, very proud of them. They all went through high school and to college,” he beamed. “When they ask me what kind of gift I want for Father’s Day or my birthday or anything, the only thing I ask them is that they come and hang out and we can make breakfast or lunch together and spend time together.”
Building stronger relations, whether though family, employees or customers, is one area where Thomas feels a lot of pride.
“My team members actually chastise me when I work on the counters. They say, ‘You have to be fired because you take too much time,’” he laughed. “But the customers always want to stand there and chat with me. In this day of transactional relationships, I still believe in building friendships.”
Choosing the word “personalized” as part of his company title was no accident. Thomas has always made himself available to customers, especially when problems arise.
“I always make sure if there is a problem — which we’ve had many come through here — I speak directly with the customer. I don’t hide behind any curtains,” he said.
“I tell them: ‘I screwed up. Now, tell me how I can resolve this. What can I do?’”
Oftentimes, an excellent lifelong customer will emerge from a bad experience if it is resolved well.
“Some of my friends tell me: ‘I remember when you ruined one of our comforters. You called us into your office and sat down with us. I’ve never had such an experience with a drycleaner.’ They remember it even if I don’t,” he said. “I tell my team members that we have hundreds of customers but they only have one drycleaner.”
In order for the customers to be happy, the employees must be first.
“You must take care of your employees. Then the employees will automatically take care of the customers,” Thomas emphasized. “A happy employee doesn’t have to say a word. The customers read their faces.”
Perhaps it does not hurt that his employees can see happiness on his own face, too. There is nothing Thomas would rather be doing.
“I don’t have any desire to retire because I’m really having fun,” he said. “When I say that, people look at me and say, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”