Pembroke native Jim Thomas, who got rich developing Los Angeles real estate, hasn’t forgotten his rural hometown.
It is a long way from Pine Street in Pembroke to Bing Crosby’s old house on the 13th hole of California’s famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, but the 2,764-mile journey reflects the unusual life story of Jim Thomas.
Thomas, 83, was born into modest circumstances in Robeson County and became a leading real estate developer and community leader in Los Angeles. He founded Thomas Properties Group in 1996, took it public in 2004 and sold the business for $1.2 billion in 2013. His life’s path has remained a two-way trek, with frequent trips back home — a testament to his love of his Lumbee Tribe heritage as well as a desire to put others on a similar path to success. He has done so by writing large checks while also being generous with his time and business acumen.
Thomas and his wife, Sally, have donated nearly $10 million to UNC Pembroke, which was established in 1887 to educate Native Americans. That includes $7 million for a new business school building, scheduled to open next summer, that will bear Thomas’ name. The university’s enrollment has more than doubled in the last decade, with a record 8,262 students this semester. It now offers 41 undergraduate and 18 graduate degrees.
Though he never attended the school, it served as a launching pad for Thomas, who grew up across the street. “My formative years were there,” he says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he now lives. “My parents were graduates of the college, and I always felt some obligation to, if I could be helpful, to do so.
“We would all play whatever sport the season was — football, baseball and basketball. I remember having a good time with sports. I cropped tobacco to make money. I didn’t like the sand lugs, but I liked the money.”
Thomas’ parents, Earl and Ophelia, were teachers who moved their family to Ohio in the early 1950s. He graduated with honors from Baldwin Wallace University, a private, liberal arts college in Berea, Ohio. He earned an economics degree while also playing basketball, both of which came into play when he owned the NBA’s Sacramento Kings from 1992 to 1999.
He graduated magna cum laude from Ohio-based Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and served in the chief counsel’s office of the Internal Revenue Service in Seattle and Los Angeles. He later became a partner in two prominent Los Angeles law firms and used his expertise in real estate law to develop many mixed-use, commercial and residential projects. He earned the moniker of “architect of the LA skyline,” with his signature project being the 73-story Library Tower, which opened in 1989. It is now called the U.S. Bank Tower.
Thomas also has homes in Pebble Beach, reflecting his love of golf, and Williamsburg, Va. But he’s never forgotten his roots.
The gift for the business school was a tough sell for Thomas. The deal was sealed only after a dinner with Robin Gary Cummings, a heart surgeon and former N.C. public health leader who became chancellor of UNCP in 2015.
During an initial phone conversation about the business school, Cummings remembers Thomas saying, “Are you asking me for $7 million?” Cummings replied, “I guess I am,” but the request gained little traction.
“I’m not a big believer that you need a big business school,” Thomas recalls telling Cummings. “That is not of interest to me. But he was really persistent. It became clear to me that this was a big thing in his mind for his success and the success of the university and the success for our people. … I very much wanted to see the chancellor succeed.”
Cummings remembers that dinner at the chancellor’s home on the UNCP campus. The building’s cost was projected to be about $30 million, and state lawmakers were asking for about 25% in private funding. It has since escalated to $38 million.
With renderings of the business school prominently positioned, Thomas took notice and reconsidered his earlier position. “I might have a deal for you,” he told the chancellor. “Sally and I will go home and look at this.”
According to Cummings, “a week later he called, and said yes on the name.” Thomas pledged $4 million for the construction and $3 million for an endowment for maintenance, understanding that the public sector tends to be better at constructing buildings than maintaining them.
At the time, Sally — whom Thomas married in 1957 — also provided a gift of $110,000 for an endowment to generate revenue to help poorer students attending UNCP with proper nutrition and clothing.
Thomas says a factor in the business school gift was that it aligned with the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship, a business incubator initiative established in 2005. The center has grown rapidly since establishing a 20,000-square-foot home on Pembroke’s Main Street in 2016. It smooths the road for people trying to establish a business by giving them affordable office space as well as free consultations.
Thomas helped pay for the new site and hired Thomas Hall as the executive director. Hall had been executive director of Hult International Business School, a nonprofit, accredited graduate business school in Cambridge, Mass. Thomas visits twice a year to chair board meetings, Hall notes before rattling off a list of local nonprofits that have benefited from Thomas’ benevolence, including the Boy Scouts of America.
“He is fully engaged and doesn’t suffer fools easily,” Hall says. “He dives completely into the numbers and impact of every issue. … [Coming] into a meeting with Jim unprepared will not end well.”
Thomas says his can-do attitude toward life took root in Pembroke as a child. He notes that he was very aware of the mistreatment of Native Americans but didn’t let it change his mindset.
“One of the things I was taught by osmosis mostly was not to be a victim,” he says. “Your fate [is] in your hands; don’t make excuses. I was aware that we were discriminated against. We were not welcome in Laurinburg, Lumberton, surrounding places, but we always thought we were better than those who didn’t like us. It wasn’t a big deal.”
Thomas is unabashed about the value of working hard.
”I think that there’s something very satisfying about work at every level,” he says. “I was a janitor at one time, but the point is the happiest people are those who have a job. Hopefully they can get a job that is satisfying to them. There is self-responsibility, and you are responsible for your actions and nobody else.”
Thomas’ most recent venture in Pembroke is the A.S. Thomas Center, a 36,000-square-foot, mixed-use development that will feature stores, restaurants and student apartments. The general contractor for the business school and the new center is Pembroke-based Metcon, a regional success story with projected revenues of more than $125 million this year. Metcon CEO Aaron Thomas is Jim Thomas’ first cousin once removed — Aaron Thomas’ great-grandfather was the brother of Jim Thomas’ grandfather.
Aaron and Jim met in 2005, when both served on the board for the Thomas Family Center of Entrepreneurship.
“He was very personable,” Aaron says. “You would expect he would be very intelligent, but he had a humble disposition about him. You speak with him and think, ‘That’s a good man there, a solid human being.’ You don’t see a lot of folks with that kind of wherewithal — highly successful but at the same time a guy who cared so much about where he came from. He spent an inordinate time coming back and trying to make things better for the people here.”
Aaron says Jim is committed to improving the plight of Lumbees, a Native American tribe of about 60,000 — the largest east of the Mississippi River — that is prominent in Robeson and surrounding counties. More than a fourth of the Lumbees live below the poverty line, but members have gained significant political power since the late 1980s.
“[Jim] was very proud to be a Lumbee,” Aaron says. “He comes at projects … from a different angle than some philanthropists do. His whole deal was, I am not giving handouts. He is about trying to create tools and programs to help people make their own lives better. He is an enabler — a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps guy.”
The A.S. Thomas Center is named for Alfred Stephens Thomas, Jim Thomas’ grandfather, who was shot to death in 1917, 19 years before Thomas was born.
Thomas recalls that his grandfather ran a general store that catered to Native Americans, giving them an option other than the locally owned Pate Supply. “There was a feeling that Indians were being taken advantage of because many could not read and write,” he says.
A white man shot and killed his grandfather in broad daylight outside that general store. The shooter was acquitted by an all-white jury in “under 10 minutes” in a courtroom in nearby Lumberton, Jim Thomas says. “Folklore” informs him that his grandfather was murdered as a way to eliminate retail competition.
The A.S. Thomas Center and the Thomas entrepreneurship center are both located on land that was once owned by Pate.
Asked if that was a less-than-subtle message, Thomas is coy. “You can say that, but I didn’t.” ■