For decades, Jay Thiessens hid a painful secret as he built his machine and tool company from a mom-and-pop operation into a $5 million-a-year enterprise. During the day he hid behind the role of a harried businessman, too busy to review contracts or shuffle through mail. At night, his wife, Bonnie, would help him sort through the paperwork at the kitchen table, in the living room, or sometimes sitting up in bed.
Other tasks he delegated to a core group of managers at B&J Machine Tool Co. who had no idea their boss couldn’t read.
“I worked for him for seven years and I had no clue,” said Jack Sala, now the engineering manager for Truckee Precision, a B&J competitor. “I was his general manager. He would bring legal stuff to me and say, ‘You’re better at legalese than me.’ I never knew I was the only one reading them.”
Few people knew of his shame and most burning desire: To be able to read a simple bedtime story to his grandchildren. But he couldn’t keep his illiteracy secret forever. “It became too hard to continue to hide it,” said Thiessens, who has begun to read at the age of 56. “Since I made the decision to let everybody know, it’s a big relief.”
On a Wednesday in 1999, Thiessens was honored in Washington, D.C., as one of six national winners of the 1999 National Blue Chip Enterprise Initiative Award. Sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MassMutual, the award recognizes small businesses that have triumphed over adversity.
Thiessens’ torment took root when he was in the first or second grade in McGill, a small mining town in central Nevada. “A teacher called me stupid because I had trouble reading,” he said. All through school, he was the quiet little boy in the back of the room.
“I think the teachers just got tired of looking at me so they passed me on,” he said. He graduated from White Pine High School in Ely 1963, getting mostly C’s, D’s and F’s. He made the honor roll once, in his senior year when he landed A’s in auto mechanics and machine shop.
The day after graduation, Thiessens moved to Reno, where 10 years later he started a small machine shop with his last $200. Today, B&J specializes in welding, machine parts and precision sheet metal work. With over 50 employees, the company conducts over $5 million a year in business and even broke ground on a new 54,000 square-foot expansion.
Despite his success, the stigma of being labeled a dummy haunted him through adulthood. He compensated by being a good listener. He rarely forgets details and has a solid grasp of math and figures, a trait essential to the industry, others say.
“The majority of everything we do is technical,” said Randy Arnett of A&B Precision, B&J’s longest competitor. “It has more to do with math, geometrical shapes, than verbiage.”
“He’s always been a decent competitor,” Arnett said of Thiessens.
Two years ago, Thiessens was invited to join a local chapter of The Executive Committee, a kind of CEO-support group where non-competing chief executives discuss business trials and tribulations in confidence.
Thiessens was reluctant. “He was concerned he wouldn’t measure up to the rest of the group,” said Randy Yost, committee chairman and former CEO of Placer Bank of Commerce in California. “About 6 months after we met, he told me he had a reading problem,” Yost said. “At that time, he was very tight-vested about it.”
Thiessens confessed to the rest of the group last year.
“He was a little teary. His voice was shaking,” recalled Doug Damon, a group member and CEO of Damon Industries, a beverage concentrate manufacturer. “It was clearly a difficult thing for him to do.” Damon was surprised by Thiessens confession. “I knew he was a high school graduate, and so I guess I automatically assumed he knew how to read. He’d been very successful in his business. Who would have thought?”
Thiessens feared titters and jeers from his college-educated CEO peers. Instead, he was overwhelmed by support. “As much as I respected him for what he accomplished, it enhanced my respect for him,” Yost said.
Thiessens found a tutor to instruct him for an hour a day, five days a week. That’s also when he told his plant managers. The rest of his employees found out last month.
Thiessens recently read “Gung Ho,” a book on employee relations, as a management team project. It was slow going as he underlined all the words he didn’t know and later sought help with. But he finished it. He wants someday to be able to rifle through mail as quickly as his wife and “round file” the piles of junk mail that comes across his desk.
More importantly, he hopes his story will encourage others to learn to read.
“There is no shame in not knowing how to read,” said Mrs. Thiessens, his wife of 37 years. “The shame is not doing anything about it.”