McCormick chief recalled for his humor

July 15, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Bailey A. Thomas, who began his sales career as a youngster going door-to-door selling greeting cards, seeds and ointment and rose to become chairman and chief executive officer of McCormick & Co. Inc., died yesterday of a heart attack at Northwest Hospital Center after being stricken at his Worthington Valley home.

He was 63.

As a top executive of the world's largest spice company, Mr. Thomas is credited with helping to revitalize McCormick during the late 1980s. He was also prominent in Maryland's corporate and charitable circles, most notably as chairman of Maryland Business for Responsible Government, a lobbying group, and on numerous local boards.

Along with former McCormick Chairman Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., Mr. Thomas oversaw a period of rapid growth at the Fortune 500 company, nearly tripling its profits in five years and expanding its markets around the world.

Mr. McCormick, whom Mr. Thomas succeeded in 1992 as chairman and chief executive officer, said Mr. Thomas' folksy manner belied his sharp mind.

"He was low-key and able to focus on things and had a great grasp of detail, and at the same time had a great sense of humor and this unique ability to make people laugh and enjoy their work," he said.

Inside McCormick's Sparks headquarters, Mr. Thomas was known for his humor and his sense of camaraderie with the company's workers.

"He was a complete extrovert who had a special magnetism," said Carroll D. Nordhoff, executive vice presient. "He knew everyone by their first name, and it made no difference if it was the chairman of the board or a member of the cleaning crew.

"He never had to carve out a time or a place for fun -- he took it with him," Mr. Nordhoff added.

Mr. McCormick recalled Mr. Thomas showing up at a sales meeting dressed as Willoughby McCormick, the company's founder, in 1890s garb. After giving a speech about corporate tradition, he ripped off his costume to reveal a Batman costume and ran from the room.

Often wore costumes

"People thought nothing of seeing him in costume," said Bill Ramsey, facilities and security manager. "He really was the embodiment of the McCormick culture."

Born in Crisfield, the son of an Eastern Shore waterman and farmer, he received his education in a one-room schoolhouse in Princess Anne. At 11, his lifelong interest in sales began with a door-to-door job.

He moved to Baltimore in 1949 to study at the Johns Hopkins University but dropped out of his engineering classes and went to work as a canned-goods salesman for Libby, McNeil & Libby.

After leaving Libby, he went to work in 1950 for the Crosse & Blackwell Co., an English-owned food company, while he earned his bachelor's degree by attending night classes at the University of Baltimore. He eventually was promoted to assistant to the president for the company. After Crosse & Blackwell was )) sold to Nestle and he was to be transferred to White Plains, N.Y., he went for an interview at McCormick.

"I hired him, and I realized then that even as a young man he had tremendous potential for McCormick," said Edward J. Vinicombe, a retired senior vice president and first head of corporate relations, in an interview from his Oxford home.

"He was a key factor in so much that happened at McCormick. If they hadn't hired Bailey, I don't know what would have happened to the company," he said.

Mr. Thomas joined the then-Light Street-based firm in 1961 as administrative assistant to the general manager of the Bulk Institutional Division. In 1967 he was promoted to manager of the newly formed McCormick Flavor Division, and from 1969 to 1973 he served as vice president and general manager of the division. In 1973, he became vice president of the Industrial Group.

Mr. Thomas was fond of explaining the company's motto, "2 for 1." In a 1992 interview in The Sun, he said, "Think twice for the company and once for yourself, and the company will think twice for you and once for itself."

Active volunteer

Mr. Thomas was a volunteer with the Goodwill Industries of Baltimore Inc. where he had been a past president and was a member of the board, and was a past president of Buddies Inc., a sponsoring organization of the Baltimore Police Boys' Clubs.

He served with numerous professional associations, such as the American Spice Trade Association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc. and the National Association of Manufacturers.

He served as chairman of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Citizens Foundation of Baltimore County.

In addition, he was a trustee of Loyola College, a special counsel to the president of Villa Julie College and a member of the Ashland Presbyterian Church.

Mr. Thomas' first marriage, to Jean Lutz, ended in divorce.

He is survived by his wife, the former Jennefer Sanchez, whom he married in 1988; three sons, Greg Thomas of Aurora, Ill., Frank Thomas of Cockeysville and John Thomas of Baltimore; and a stepson, Jason Sanchez of Owings Mills.

Memorial donations may be made to the Bailey A. Thomas Fund, c/o McCormick & Co. Inc., 18 Loveton Circle, Sparks 21152-6000. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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