CEO of the Year, Large Nonprofit

Building Humanity

By
From the December 2013 issue of Columbus CEO

E.J. Thomas brings a wealth of experience to bear on his work as CEO of Habitat for Humanity-MidOhio. His policy acumen paired with his ability to build consensus as a leader kept the organization afloat through the recession.

“I’m very proud of the team here for what they’ve been able to accomplish. We’ve gone from an affiliate that was in trouble to being one of the top 50 in the country,” says Thomas from his office, which is furnished with Habitat ReStore items and always has an open door.

Today, Habitat-MidOhio is growing, having merged the Licking County branch into the MidOhio operation. Thomas serves on the U.S. Council of Habitat International, where he plays a role in making policy for the organization’s 1,553 affiliates and advocates for Habitat on Capitol Hill.

Thomas’ peers have recognized his accomplishments by voting him Large Nonprofit CEO of the Year for 2013.

*Interview has been edited for length

If we look at Habitat as a comprehensive nonprofit, it’s like a complex watch in that we don’t just have one element that is our mission. We provide low-income housing home ownership opportunities for our families. We then build a new house, but in order to be builders, we have to be developers. So we have to pull permits, just like any other developer does. We have to meet exactly the same specifications.

I think people sometimes wonder if we build a quality home. I think in their mind they see a Dr. Seuss structure, and our homes are built as well or better than anything you’ll find.

To that point, if you’re familiar with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds that were part of Stimulus One …our rebuilds--where we go in and we gut-to-stud and we rebuild the home from the ground up, inside out—our homes were the…top energy efficient homes of any in the city that were built under that program.

 

We went through some very tough sledding my first year. It was a turnaround. We were about to go under. There’s no way, having come into Habitat (and) not having been exposed to Habitat before, that I was going to come in with my thumbs under my lapel and say ‘I’ve got all the answers.’ No. You’ve got to spend some time listening. You’ve got to let folks know that you need a change of culture immediately…and that’s what we did.

I’m very fortunate that almost all of the folks that were with me then are still here, which is kind of unusual in a nine-year run. We had one of our directors that got recruited away by Habitat International, so they must have liked what they saw there.

I give the team the credit. My job is to provide the environment for them to flourish. If they’re recruited away, it’s because of what they have been able to do. Do I take some satisfaction? I feel very strongly that there are two bedrock components to leadership. One of them is management: You’ve got to count the beans. If you can’t count the beans, you’re going to go under. The other one is mentorship. If you’re lousy at either one of those, then you’re a lousy leader.

I’m very blessed to have the team that I’ve got and I’m proud of all of them.

In the crash that we are just coming out of, there was a lot of criticism of low-income home buyers, that they were the cause of the problem. I would suggest to you that it is not the low-income home buyers. We are serving the 30-60 percent average median income—we’re serving the working poor here. Fifty percent of the average median income in Franklin County is $32,500 for a family of four. Can you imagine raising a family of four on $32,500? It’s tough.

Our data show that right about half of our homeowners are paying less for their mortgage than they were for substandard housing. And they’re gaining equity in their home. Now the reason that they can afford their home in the first place is because we provide a 0-percent mortgage.

When you think about it, it’s the worst financing mechanism from a business perspective known to man. .. (but) it’s just our mission and that’s why we do it.

I’m a firm believer that people stay or leave their job based on what’s happening ten feet from their desk. If you have a lousy environment…people are going to find someplace else to work. The flip of that is if you provide a positive environment, you have a chain of command structure so that if people have issues—our mantra here is that if you have an issue you go eyeball-eyeball with somebody, you try to fix it. Be a big person. Be respectful, fix it.

Photo by Ryan M.L. Young