Peggy Thomas, She’s Positively Successful
We’ve all heard the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In other words, sometimes life presents us with obstacles, and we have to turn them into opportunities.
But when given lemons, entrepreneur Peggy Thomas doesn’t settle for lemonade; instead, she’ll recruit your apples and my oranges, and make fruit salad.
Peggy is fabulous at 50. She exudes positive energy and warmth. She’s happily married and enjoys her two well-adjusted teenagers—one of whom, her son Kevin, has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism. And in the true spirit of lemons and lemonade fruit salad, she’s taken her experience in advocating for her son and built a successful education-based business.
This year, Peggy will lead the Fayette Chamber of Commerce as Chairman of the Board.
Born to be in Business
Peggy Odum Thomas was raised by her parents with her three sisters in Greensboro, N.C. Peggy’s dad owned an electrical and plumbing supply business. He and her mother worked hard, but both struggled with alcoholism. Peggy’s mom also battled breast cancer. Probably due to high medical bills, Peggy wasn’t encouraged to go to college. After high school, Peggy worked in the retail industry for a year. That Thanksgiving, her mom had a request. “She made us all divide up her stuff, all the furniture and pictures and china.” It was cancer, again, and this time it was untreatable.
Because of the strain on the family, Peggy’s father asked her to move back home and work for his business. At age 20, Peggy traveled four states and gained valuable sales experience.
After her mother’s death, Peggy wanted to move to Richmond with her sister and applied for a job selling copiers there. The owner said to Peggy, “We like salespeople who are hungry. Are you hungry?” She answered, “Yeah, this is my third interview here, and I drove four hours.”
“He didn’t laugh,” Peggy remembers, “but I sold a lot of copiers for him.”
In the meantime, Peggy was considering going to college, but it didn’t seem to make sense since she was already making a good living.
“It was 1982, and I was making $35,000 a year,” she says. “And I put $35,000 on one hand and ramen noodles on the other. I weighed it back and forth and didn’t look back.”
Personal Business Takes Flight
About that time, Peggy met Joe Thomas, a tall, handsome Air Force pilot. “I liked Peggy because she was optimistic,” Joe says. “She liked her job.” He was 29, she was 27.
“He and I talked into the wee hours of the night,” recalls Peggy. Joe shipped off to England, but stayed in touch. “He wrote me these hilarious letters. One postcard said, ‘I went down to the pool and all these girls were topless, so I took off my top, too.’”
When Joe returned from England, he immediately came to see Peggy, and the relationship strengthened. Peggy became fast friends with Joe’s mom while dating him long distance for two years. “She told him, ‘You’d better marry that girl,’” Peggy laughs. “And he listened to his mom.”
“We had a traditional military wedding and a priest who liked to gamble in Vegas,” says Joe. “He started the ceremony, ‘Life is like a cheeseburger. . .’” They picked him because Peggy sold him a copier.
Corporate Business Copied
Joe and Peggy moved to California, and Peggy began a corporate sales job with Sharp Electronics. “I’d been working for a local distributor, so the corporate staff knew me,” she explains. “When I interviewed with them, I said, ‘I don’t have a college degree.’ And they said ‘That’s okay, we’ll give you a waiver.’” She covered California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii for Sharp.
Her rise in the company was fast. Terri Ameen, a friend and business associate of Peggy’s since her single days, remembers, “Even as a young person, she was on top of the game. She was a local salesperson who went national. She rises to the top with her leadership skills, common sense, and her people skills.”
On one occasion, Peggy had to compete with eight of the best salespeople at Sharp on demonstrating a complex new copier. It was a high pressure situation—and she started off with a mistake. “I had pressed copy without putting an original in,” she remembers, “so I said, ‘Look, it’s a copy of a polar bear in the snow.’ And they all laughed.” Peggy won a free vacation.
“I was shocked. The others had so much more experience than me,” Peggy says. It was her approachability and her sense of humor that they appreciated.
For Peggy and Joe, marriage was good, too. Joe explains, “I was home two months, gone two months flying U2s. She was flexible with that.” Also, Joe wasn’t threatened by Peggy’s success. “She made twice as much as I did,” Joe says, “and I always said that’s fantastic. You can make ten times. Why wouldn’t you want your wife to be successful?”
The End of Business as Usual
Unfortunately, Peggy’s corporate career ended in a crash—literally. On a mountain biking trip with a friend in Lake Tahoe, she hit a rock and lost consciousness. Her serious head injury—leaving her seeing double for the next six months—meant that she could not work awhile.
Peggy and Joe decided it was time for a family. From the beginning, that’s what Peggy had wanted out of life. “I had a goal that I’d be a stay at home mom and raise my kids,” says Peggy.
Their first child, Kevin, was born at 34 weeks, weighing three and a half pounds. Kevin had mild cerebral palsy and other physical problems that required multiple surgeries in his infancy.
As he grew older, it became clear that Kevin had sensory issues. Peggy would try to talk him through it, narrating their day together. “I would carry him in a backpack at the grocery store, and say, ‘We’re going into the grocery store and I know you don’t like the lights. You can hide your head if you need to. We’ll only be in here 20 minutes.’”
“I found out that was really important,” Peggy continues. “Kids with Asperger’s want to know their schedule. Because we were watching the cerebral palsy and sensory issues, we did the right stuff for his Asperger’s.”
More Baby Business
Two years later, at her father’s funeral, Peggy’s aunt told her, “When God takes a life, he gives a life. And it’s you, you’re pregnant.” Whether vision or superstition, Joe and Peggy’s daughter Carol was born nine months later at a healthy nine and a half pounds.
By then Peggy and Joe were living in Florida. Joe had retired from the Air Force and found a job with Delta. Peggy was a full-time mom, but she was finding it difficult to make sure Kevin was getting a good education.
Joe explains, “When Kevin was going into kindergarten, his Pre-K teacher recommended a classroom with kids who couldn’t talk or move. Peggy said, ‘No, we’re not putting him in there,’ against the experts, both the teacher and the county psychologist. She followed her own beliefs.”
They pulled Kevin out of Florida’s public school, putting him in Catholic kindergarten. It was the right decision. By the end of that school year, Kevin was reading at a second-grade level.
However, as Peggy remarks, “We didn’t want to live in a place where they felt that secluding kids with special needs was a good way to educate them.” Peggy and Joe believed in public school, so they searched for a place with more inclusive and progressive special education programs. They found Fayette County and subsequently relocated to Peachtree City.
Now How About a Business
Soon, with both Kevin and Carol settled in school, Peggy and Joe decided to begin something new and start a business. None of the franchises they researched had the flexibility they wanted, until they found Club Z! In-Home Tutoring.
Peggy and Joe bought their Club Z! franchise Nov. 3, 2004, planning on having a part-time business. Club Z! central told them they should be able to enroll one or two kids each week. But to their surprise, after opening in January 2005, they had enrolled 28 kids in the first month.
“Suddenly I was working full time,” Peggy says.
Her Club Z! franchise manual instructed not to invest in the local Chamber of Commerce. “But our Chamber has a very strong Partner in Education program. That’s just a smart business move, to get involved in the schools when you have a tutoring business,” says Peggy.
As part of their Partner in Education participation, Peggy and Joe worked closely with McIntosh High School to develop a program they could use to screen students and raise their SAT scores. Peggy and Joe turned it into a fundraiser for the guidance department. They extended the SAT program to all Fayette County high schools.
“We have raised and given $17,572 to Fayette County high schools. That’s over 875 kids. Now we’re writing that program for the whole country for Club Z!,” said Peggy. Because of this program, Club Z! won Partner in Education of the Year from the Fayette Chamber of Commerce in 2009.
Business the Positive Peggy Way
Peggy’s work in the education arena didn’t go unnoticed by the business community. The Fayette Chamber awarded Club Z! with Small Business of the Year, in 2007, their third year in business.
Peggy’s natural abilities to inspire, motivate and lead others were also noticed. Soon, Peggy was on the Fayette Chamber Board, and quickly on their leadership ladder. This year she’s the Chairman.
Along with her strong leadership style, Peggy makes strong personal connections. She’s made a great friend in Fayette Chamber President Virginia Gibbs. “Peggy is such a sharp, intelligent person. She looks to how she can best support the Chamber as a servant leader,” says Virginia, continuing, “We met through the chamber, but we’ve got an amazing friendship. How do you not like Peggy?”
Together, Peggy and Virginia tackled Operation Boot Camp after winning a silent auction bid together. “There we were at 5:30 a.m. in the mud. We had to do an alliteration of our names to introduce ourselves. Positive Peggy was hers. It was so appropriate. Whatever challenge she faces, she keeps that perspective,” says (Victorious) Virginia.
This year Peggy’s theme for leadership is Positively Fayette. Her focus is on maximizing the business community through the strength of the Fayette Chamber. She sees good beginnings ahead.
About the Business of Faith
“Peggy is a woman of substance. She has a deep spiritual side. She always finds the best in people. She has my respect,” says Virginia Gibbs.
Faith has been important to Peggy since she was a child. In spite of their struggles, Peggy’s parents faithfully took her and her sisters to church each week. When her mother was sick, her faith was a refuge for Peggy, and she wanted the same foundation for her children.
Peggy and Joe had raised the kids in the Catholic faith, but with Joe’s work travel and her kids’ boredom with church ritual, they got out of the habit of going. Then, the Thomas family found Heritage Christian Church, close to their Fayetteville home. “It had what I was missing: relationships and a purposeful warmth,” says Peggy.
Last year, Peggy experienced a spiritual renewal. “I sat in the pew and cried every week. I felt a resurgence in my faith. I was baptized on Easter.”
For Peggy, God was more and more evident in her everyday life. Her daughter asked her to lead her group at church.
Peggy didn’t see it at first. “My schedule was so packed. And I didn’t feel qualified.” But she took on the group of 13-year-old girls, and is grateful that she did, because of how she’s been able to impact their lives and connect with her daughter. “I needed to be there. I understand my daughter so much better now that I am spending this time with these girls,” says Peggy.
Her First Business, Her Kids
While Club Z! is a student-focused business, Peggy makes it her business to take care of her children first. Carol, who is now a freshman in high school, thinks that her mom is doing great. “She’s really caring,” Carol remarks. “I look up to her because of what she does in the community. She has a big heart.”
Peggy knows that perfection isn’t the key to parenting; it’s something that runs much deeper. “If you love your kids—and my parents loved us—they’ll turn out okay.”
Peggy encourages Carol’s athletics and her desire to cook. Carol continues, “I’ve never felt second fiddle. I think they raised us in a way to accept other people. Kevin sometimes needs more than me. Sometimes I have to do more than Kevin. My mom has done a good job of raising us to love one another.”
Having an exceptional kid like Kevin, who is now a junior in high school, has changed the direction of Peggy’s life. And having Peggy as a mom means that Kevin has achievements you might not normally see for a kid with Asperger’s. Kevin, in spite of his challenges, has published movie reviews and editorials for the last five years. He credits his mom: “She’s the reason why I’m writing stuff. The Citizen asked for kid reviewers, and she got me to do it.”
It’s a common misconception that Peggy actually does the tutoring in her business. From her basement office, she coordinates an army of 80-100 tutors, all with at least a four-year degree in different subject matter expertise.
Over the course of her work with Kevin and with Club Z!, Peggy has heard disheartening reports about bright kids with Asperger’s winding up as couch potatoes. So, consistent with her let’s-make-a-difference ethos, she’s bringing experts to Fayette for a conference on helping students with Asperger’s attend college. (see article below).
Education IS her Business
Peggy’s experience with Kevin and with countless clients since has given her a unique education. So she applies these great skills for Club Z!’s clients.
“When a student is newly diagnosed with a learning disability, it can feel like a maze. The teachers are on one side of the table, the parents on the other,” says Peggy, “but I become the bridge. I understand the systemenough to navigate it. I go to the parent-teacher meetings, and we don’t charge for that. I report to the tutor. We are able to pinpoint the challenges more quickly and do very specific tutoring to make that child become an independent learner.”
Peggy likes to say that her goal is for Club Z!’s tutors to work their way out of a job. It’s gratifying to see students win—with higher SAT scores, better chemistry grades, learning to read or conquering math fears.
How to Succeed in Business
Peggy is a natural business success. Part of that is because her marriage works so well as a business partnership. When Joe’s not flying he handles the operations of Club Z!, from finding tutors to finding process efficiencies. Peggy’s arena is in managing people and developing the business. Together, they are unstoppable.
Still, finding balance between business and personal time from day to day can be challenging. “When I was a stay-at-home mom, I always took time for myself. Now that’s a problem for me,” she admits. While Peggy likes to read and to garden, she jokes that her front lawn is a “disaster of patchy soil.”
But Peggy’s busy looking to the future, rather than lamenting her lawn. She feels good about where her life, business and the Fayette Chamber are headed.
“If we focus on the true needs of the businesses and are transparent and open in our dealings, then the entire community will benefit,” Peggy reflects. “God has blessed me with these opportunities to show that you can do the right thing and still succeed in business.”
And she’s positively right.
College and Career Path for Kids with Asperger’s
Peggy Thomas has had college on her mind a lot lately, and not just because she facilitates SAT prep high school students; her son Kevin, who has Asperger’s, is a high school junior.
In true Peggy-fashion, she has researched and found all kind of resources for kids with Asperger’s. And she’s not keeping them to herself.
Peggy has put together College Bound Conference for Students with Asperger’s and other Assorted Learning Differences.
Asperger’s is a form of autism, characterized by a higher functioning individual who often excels at one or more subjects. Peggy believes that students with Asperger’s have incredible untapped potential and wants to see that they are given every opportunity.
The College Bound Conference is Saturday, March 3, 2012 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including a continental breakfast and lunch. Held at Grace Evangelical Church, 164 Flat Creek Trail in Fayetteville, the conference features best-selling author John Elder Robison, who wrote Look Me in the Eye. Several other experts will be presenting from both education and experience standpoints.
College Bound Conference is made possible by the MetLife Center for Special Needs Planning through Hallman Walters Wealth Management. Tickets are $95 for adults and $59 for students. Register at http://tinyurl.com/CollegeBoundAspies. Those with questions can contact Raissa Chandler at 770-713-6731 or Fayette@p2pga.org. For more details, visit www.SouthsideSupport.org/projects/college-bound-conference/.
“We’ve brought together people who truly understand creating a path to success for students with Asperger’s. We need to give our kids with challenges every opportunity, and this is a good start,” says Peggy.
5 Minutes With Fayette Woman Peggy Thomas
Hear Peggy’s thoughts on parenting, education, business and more in a supplemental video interview. Follow this link to the video, or visit our YouTube channel at: http://youtube.com/fayettewoman.