“Never sit at a table when you can stand at the bar.”
It’s my favorite Hemingway quote and something of a way of life since I first heard it while tending bar thirty years ago. It’s been my experience that nearly everyone passes by the bar on their way to a table. Some just walk through, some stay for a drink and some never leave. The bar is where introductions are made, business is done and friendships grow in the lies of the last round and the truth of the next. Painted in the dim light and white noise of the room, experience passes as wisdom and stories told quietly fade to obscurity or become legend. Much like an estuary the bar serves as a transition zone between environments creating a unique, sometimes primordial, habitat that brims with life of all kinds. If the table is the river proper or the open ocean, the bar is the backwater.
A few weeks ago I was standing at the bar after the annual Bears Den Fly Fishing Show. Seated on one side of me were Bob Popovics and Dick Dennis joined by Scott Wessels and Bri; on the other were Jamie Boyle, Dave Skok, Jeff Iadonisi and Pat Cohen. Tom Harrison and Brian Lynch stood over my left shoulder and in the back were Ian Devlin, Mark Sedotti and Rob Lewis. To a person walking in with no knowledge of the fly fishing/fly tying world it would seem like just a group of friends meeting up on a Saturday night. For me, considering the sum of knowledge and experience the group collectively represented, it was a chocolate factory and I had a golden ticket.
I stood there in the middle listening to the conversations going on around me and imagined the scene at the Dingo or the Ritz Bar in Paris ninety years ago as the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Picasso, Pound and the other members of The Lost Generation rode a rainy Saturday night into Sunday morning. I was brought back to the present as I took the last sip of my beer and motioned to the bartender for another. When she set the beer in front of me a voice over my shoulder said, “Put that on my tab.”
The accent, considering my temporary mental visit to Paris, threw me for a second until I realized it was Neville. I turned and said, “Thank you, but you don’t have to do that.”
He grabbed me in a hug and said, “We’re fly fishermen. We’re brothers. Tonight, we drink together!”
Neville Orsmond is the owner and CEO of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods. I had spoken with him briefly a few times but had never had the opportunity for one on one conversation with him. I’ve read a few articles about Neville, how he came to buy the company and the work he has put into bringing the T & T name back to the forefront of the fly rod industry. I was curious what would compel someone who had little to no experience in the business end of the fly fishing industry to buy a struggling company in a segment of the industry as tough as the rod market is.
So that was my first question. His answer was immediate and delivered with no pause or further explanation.
“Because I’m a fly fisherman.”
I asked more questions and Neville told me of his childhood in South Africa. He learned to fly fish with bamboo rods and as he developed as a fly fisherman he revered T & T rods as the best not only for their performance but more so for the quality and craftsmanship. As time went on he found himself in the New York area working in a job that provided a living for he and his family but left him feeling a little empty. The upside was that there was a lot of fishing to be found close to where he was living and he was able to take advantage of it.
In 2013, frustrated with customer service, Neville made a trip to the T & T facility to place an order in person for more rods to add to his collection. While he was there he learned that the company was near bankruptcy and that the ownership wanted to sell the company rather than try to keep the brand alive. “All I could think about after leaving that day was that I could not let the tradition that is T & T just disappear and be forgotten.” Seven months of round-the-clock work later he became the new owner and CEO of the company.
For nearly an hour we talked about the challenges he faced, and still faces every day, taking over the company. The infrastructure and equipment needed serious updating, the brand had to be re-energized and customer trust had to be renewed. Most importantly the faith of the entire T & T team in the new leadership had to be earned. That’s the thing that struck me the most about our conversation. Neville has absolute admiration and respect for his team, many of whom helped build the company to what it originally was, and for what they do.
“We’re all fly fishermen,” he said. “That’s what made this company great once and that’s what is making it great again. Not me, it’s our people.”
He went on, “Every rod ever made by T & T has been made here in America. Each rod is handcrafted one at a time. Our rods are more expensive but when one goes out the door to a customer, it already has a soul. That’s not production, it’s craftsmanship. No other rod company does what we do.”
In addition to rebuilding the production and business end of things, Neville knew he had to rebuild the T & T brand and customer relationships. Tom Dorsey, one of the original T’s in T & T is back helping with design and development. Neville sees this as a connection to the company’s traditions of the past that the older generation of fly fishermen remember.
To introduce the younger generation to T & T Neville relies on his Advisors and Ambassadors to help spread the word and showcase T & T products in different fisheries and environments. “We have advisors like Jako Lucas, Keith Rose-Inness and Rebekka Redd who are able to travel the world and showcase and test our rods in destination locations against big fish and extreme conditions.”
He went on to explain he understands that realistically the number of people who can travel to places like the Seychelles or Kiribati for GT’s or Mongolia for taimen make up a small percentage of the customer base. “Every customer is equally important to us. We’re making rods for the customer to trust and enjoy wherever they might be fishing, whether it’s a small stream next to their house or the flats of Cape Cod, we want each customer to be satisfied and confident with their rod.”
In addition to the Advisors and Ambassadors, Neville and his team also rely on a group of guides who are on the water every day to test, critique and advise on T & T products. “These guys know better than anybody what the rods need to do because they make their living using them.” He pointed to Tom Harrison and Brian Lynch standing behind us and said, “Tom and his crew at Harrison Anglers and Brian fish clients all year long close to our plant. If they have a day off they’re usually out fishing themselves. We can’t ask for better product testing and feedback than that. And it’s in our own backyard.”
“We also rely on shops like the Bear’s Den,” he added pointing to Scott Wessels at the bar. “Scott knows every single rod on the market and is incredibly skilled at matching a customer to a rod. He also has the pulse of the industry…guys like him are an invaluable resource.”
The bartender brought another round. Neville looked around the bar, raised his glass and said, “It’s all about the people.”
Indeed it is. You’re one of the good ones, Neville.
Next time we’re standing at the bar, drinks are on me.
South River, MA
13 March 2017