EPIC Spotlight: Rod Thomas

Rod Thomas grew up watching the men in his family toil in the factories where most of the nation’s popular tires were made.
“They would come home covered in tire soot,” Thomas recalls.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, known then as the “Rubber Capital of the World,” its tire factories were his family’s livelihood.

Then something dramatic happened. The factories shut down and relocated when Thomas was in high school. Rather than be unemployed, Thomas’ father uprooted the family and moved to Albemarle, North Carolina, but leaving Thomas behind to finish high school in Ohio. What Thomas witnessed scared him. “It gave me an edge to push and stay in school,” he says.

As a result, Thomas was the first man in his family to earn a college degree.

Now, instead of working in a factory like the ones that employed his father, uncles and grandfathers, he studies their role in supply chains. To do it at the Sam M. Walton of College is a dream come true, he says. Thomas, an associate professor, joined the Department of Supply Chain Management in July 2017. He also assumed the position of executive director for Walton’s Supply Chain Management Research Center, where he serves as a liaison between faculty and the center, which connects students, industry and faculty through internships, workshops, conferences and other means. “I have always wanted to be here,” Thomas says.

Northwest Arkansas contains the best of both worlds, he says, with Walmart providing lots of opportunities for research and being one of the first major corporations to realize the importance of logistics, Thomas says.

Thomas’ research interests involve the decision-making and collaboration that goes into managing supply chains. While a lot of research is very analytical, he finds behavioral aspects of supply chain management the most interesting. His research typically utilizes experimental and qualitative approaches. Journals that have published his findings include the Journal of Business Logistics, Journal of Supply Chain Management and the Journal of Retailing.

He also teaches Supply Chain Strategy, a senior-level course that gives students real life projects. “It’s about as real an experience as you can get while being in the classroom,” Thomas says.

Prior to coming to Walton, Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and worked in the tire industry as a demand forecaster. While at that job, he realized he needed to broaden his supply chain management knowledge and earned a MBA at the University of Tennessee, which enabled him to work for Lowe’s, a home improvement chain store, where he served in various logistics roles. Yearning to work in academia, he continued his education at Tennessee, earning a doctorate in supply chain management. During this time, he got to know Associate Professor Terry Esper, who taught there and later came to Walton, along with Brent Williams, associate dean of Walton’s Executive Education and Outreach. They both inspired Thomas to leave his Texas Tech University position to come to the University of Arkansas.

Thomas’ wife, Stephanie Thomas, has also joined the supply chain department as a clinical assistant professor. They have two children and are settling into their new life in Northwest Arkansas.

“There’s no better place than the Sam M. Walton College of Business,” he says.