For more than two-thirds of his 65 years on Earth, Marshall Thornton has worked in service and installing at Office Environment Company in Louisville, Kentucky. Three generations of the family-owned business have been at the helm during his career.
"I actually worked here a couple summers in high school."
After a stint in the Army, he tried a different tack. "I got married, I think, when I was 21, and I worked at a box plant and I got laid off a few times, and when I did, I came down here and talked to Mr. B, which is Kelly and Tricia's dad, and I told him, 'I'll come down and work for you until something comes along.' I've been temporary for 41 years." He smiles at the inevitable laugh.
Mr. B was Mr. Burke, father to current company president, Tricia Burke, and company chairman, Wm. Kelly Burke. At the time Thornton was hired on, Mr. B was junior to, as Thornton calls him, "Ol' Mr. Kelly," Mr B’s father-in-law, who Thornton worked under for 25 years.
"It's changed a lot. Before, everything used to be cut and dry, you know: a desk, a chair, a file cabinet. Then they got into the modular furniture, and it grew from there. Of course, they kept corning up with different lines, different styles of furniture, and you have to adapt to all of it… There's always something you've got to modify to make it work."
Thornton might have to pack on a few more pounds to be mistaken for St. Nick in warmer months, but after Thanksgiving, he's known to wear a Santa hat and red shirt when he goes out on calls. With his white beard and glasses, the resemblance is uncanny. After so much time and so many long-term relationships with customers, around the holidays, he can't be sure he's being called for a legitimate repair.
"I had one or two customers that would always break something right around when their Christmas party was, and they'd call and ask me to come down and fix it … They see Santa pull up at their Christmas party, and I go in to fix something and they'll say, 'Oh, well, we've already fixed it.'" Instant office party Santa. "It was all in fun," he says.
Thornton values customer service, though he might not say so in those words. It's clear a big part of this for him is having fun in everyday interactions.
"I like to joke with people, you know. I think I read 'em pretty good," he says. One day, he was out working on an office remodel. "I was putting up some modular furniture, and the lady asked if I could put her door on this end instead of this end," He gestures left to right.
"I said, 'Sure,' I said, 'I can hang it on the ceiling if you like.' I was just joking around. Well, she called my boss and complained that I was being rude, and I thought, 'Well…'"
That's where the story would usually end: an annoyance on each end. Not for Thornton, though. He had to apologize in person.
"He told me about it and I drove back out there and apologized and told her I was just kidding, and it turned out she's one of my biggest fans. You know, after [I sat and talked] to her, explained what I was doing … She was just having a bad day. She took it wrong, I don't know, but we turned out to be good friends after that."
After so much time on a job, it's hard to let it go. Thornton talks about showing up for work every day like it's a habit he's trying to break. In all the years he's worked at Office Environment Company, he's only called in sick to work twice.
"I was gonna retire last March. I actually had a couple customers that called up wanting to know if they could subcontract with me to come out and do the work for 'em. So I've known a lot of nice customers. I've known some of 'em 40 years, and a lot of them died off and retired. I think I'm ready to go out the door. I'm at the jumping off point," he laughs. "No, I don't plan on retiring for a while. I'm just gonna cut back some."
"The only interest I've had longer than Office Environment Company is Jean, my lovely wife of 44 years." Thornton's also proud of his son and daughter who have both embarked on careers of their own. He pulls up a photo on his cell phone: one of him in his Santa getup with his daughter dressed as an elf at her job's Christmas party. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Contact Office Environment Company for a broad range of office products, backed by personalized service
Visit the Office Environment Company showroom in downtown Louisville at 12th & Market for ideas on how to create a workspace to meet your needs. You might not see Marshall Thornton in his Santa hat, but you will encounter friendly customer service. You can also contact the company at 502-585-5161.