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
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 Wednesday, Thiessens will be 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 50 employees,
the company conducts $5 million a year in business and just 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.
Last October, 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
"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."