WILLIAM THOMAS

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William Thomas - JBL Owner 1949-69
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

 


More than anyone else, William H. Thomas was responsible for JBL's ultimate rise to preeminence in the loudspeaker industry. From 1949 to 1969, Thomas was the majority owner, president and, for a time, chief engineer of JBL. The following is a brief profile.

William H. Thomas was born in Los Angeles, California on November 28, 1912. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles from 1931 to 1935, majoring in physics. He became interested in sound and acoustics when employed by the Kittell-Muffler company in 1938. Ultimately, Mr. Thomas was to become sole owner of this company in 1945.

Mr. Thomas's business association with James B. Lansing began in 1946 when he became a member of the Board of Directors of James B. Lansing Sound. Mr. Thomas had a long standing friendship with Lansing, having previously met through their mutual business associate, Chester Noble. At that time, Thomas did not have an ownership position in Lansing's company.

This was to change in 1949. By then, Mr. Thomas was involved with a new business venture, Marquardt Aircraft. This was a company he helped found with Roy Marquardt in 1946 and for which he was serving as Treasurer and General Manager. Mr. Thomas had offered Lansing work space in Marquardt's facility when Lansing was looking to expand from his home-based operation in San Marcos. Lansing was experiencing significant financial difficulties and soon became indebted to Marqaurdt. It resulted in Marquardt taking an ownership interest in James B. Lansing Sound that rose to 70% of the company at the time Lansing's death in 1949. Thomas then assumed control of the shares owned by Marquardt. He subsequently became President of James B. Lansing Sound, thereby achieving complete control of the management and direction of the company.

This was a pivotal time for JBL. Thomas had gained ownership of a company that was struggling on the brink of bankruptcy. A "key-man" life insurance policy on James B. Lansing in the amount $10,000 provided crucial capital to maintain the company. Thomas used this and another $10,000 of his own funds to pay off the company's debts. Nonetheless, Thomas recognized that drastic action was required to make the company viable. He devised a three year plan to triple products sales and reduce expenses by 30%. JBL realized this goal by the 1952 target date. However, this had only resulted in the company achieving a break-even status. Thomas then devised a business plan to expand the company. The core of this plan was to establish JBL as the top-quality, loudspeaker manufacturer and to develop a corporate image of prestige in the minds of their consumers and dealers.


Richard Ranger and JBL Paragon
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

This was accomplished on two fronts. On the technical front, Thomas realized the need to develop products that represented the cutting edge in loudspeaker design. He relied on consultants to provide the necessary expertise. Chief among these consultants was Bart Locanthi, who would later join the company as Vice President of Engineering in 1960. Bart Locanthi was responsible for pioneering research in computer-aided design of loudspeakers using analog computers. He applied this technique to the development of the LE (Linear Efficiency) series of drivers, derivatives of which remain in the JBL catalog to this day. Other consultants included William L. Hartsfield who was responsible for the design of his namesake speaker. Richard Ranger and Arnold Wolf consulted on the development of the most famous speaker ever produced by JBL - the Paragon.

The second front in achieving Thomas's five year plan was promotion. The promotional activities were targeted in specific areas, as opposed to a broad-based consumer advertising campaign. Principle to this, was promoting the company through trade shows and trade magazines within the industry. Substantial effort was placed on developing a core dealer network.

JBL Hartsfield
Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

Even before Thomas's self imposed 1957 target date, the company had largely achieved its objectives. A prime example was the 1955 publication of an article in Life Magazine called "How to Buy High Fidelity". That article contained an assessment of JBL's Hartsfield system as "the ultimate dream speaker." This article resulted in an immediate jump in both name recognition and sales.

Thomas continued to expand the company into the 60's. He also maintained interests in other business ventures. In the 50's, his Kittle-Muffler company had formed a subsidiary, Kittle-Lacy Inc., that became instrumental in the development of jet aircraft test silencers. In 1957, he established a JBL subsidiary called Transducers Inc., that developed facilities for high intensity noise simulation for use in the design of missile components.

By 1969, JBL was arguably the premier loudspeaker manufacturer in both the consumer and professional markets. On the professional front, JBL had added studio monitors and musical instrument loudspeakers to their traditional line of products for the movie industry. However, Thomas's involvement in JBL was to end that year. After years of long hours in the day-to-day management of his many business interests, Thomas decided it was time to retire and liquidated his assets, including JBL. The company was sold to the Jervis Corporation, headed by Dr. Sidney Harman.

2000 Don McRitchie
based in part on a 1980 interview by John Eargle