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Home | SAN ANTONIO | Spotlight | Spotlight – Thomas Schluter, President, Beckwith Electronic Engineering

Spotlight – Thomas Schluter, President, Beckwith Electronic Engineering

image Thomas Schluter with his wife Cynthia and their two sons in 2011

SAN ANTONIO – About 28 years ago, Jack Beckwith, one of the founders of Beckwith Electronic Engineering along with George Ridder, hired Thomas Schluter.

    The founding owners never really entertained the notion of selling the business. So, they probably did not foresee Schluter, who worked under Beckwith to earn his Professional Engineer license, expressing an interest in becoming the new owner of the company.
    Under Schluter’s leadership, the company grew, and in recent years, Beckwith celebrated its 50th anniversary. Cynthia Schluter, his wife, works with him as vice president of Corporate Relations.
    Today, the company that began in 1962 sells, installs, and services commercial life safety and communication systems as well as security products and systems. While looking ahead to the future, always planning the next step, Schluter recalls how it all started.

How did you get involved with Beckwith?
    I’m originally from Mexico City and came to San Antonio in 1981 to go to school at Trinity University to get my engineering degree. I graduated in 1985 and started working for Beckwith in 1986.
    I started working for them as a manager trainee under Mr. Beckwith primarily. I learned the day-to-day operations and business from him. After work, I would go out and do installations for the different systems that we sold and installed and serviced so that I could get more hands-on experience with the products and how these products worked so that I could then answer any questions.
    In 1988, I was promoted to general manager and from there on out, I started looking at different ways of growing the business.
    I truly enjoyed what I did. I liked the different interactions with people – both with my fellow employees and our customers. This was something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. So, I approached Mr. Beckwith and Mr. Ridder – most people don’t know the company was owned by two individuals – in 1989 and asked if they were interested in selling the business.
    It was news to them. They hadn’t thought about it. A few years later, in 1991, I bought the company from them and both of them continued working for me, Mr. Beckwith for four years and Mr. Ridder for about eight years on more of a part-time basis.
    After I bought the company, I started looking at different products to add to our portfolio. We did primarily schools and hospitals back then as well as intercom and nurse call systems. But we saw there was a need for having a good fire alarm contractor. So, I looked into adding another line. I ended up choosing the fire alarm systems manufactured by Edwards Systems. Soon thereafter, the company started to grow from basically 15 employees when I bought the company to close to 93 employees today with two offices, one in San Antonio and one in Austin. And it’s been a great ride.
    One of the things that I learned early on was that I can’t do everything, and you need great employees to get you where you need to be. I’m blessed in the fact that we’ve had some great employees who have worked for our company for a very long time. We actually have one person, Jordan Boehme, who has been with the company since 1963. It is things like that that have made this journey very rewarding. I thank my long-time and successful employees for allowing us to be where we are today.
    In addition to that, we were fortunate to have some great customers that we deal with who really appreciate the work that we do and keep coming back.

Tell me about your background.
    Although I was born and raised in Mexico City, my background is primarily German. My dad’s family on his mother’s side has been in Mexico since 1824. My mother is from Germany, and she came to Mexico in 1960. She’s been in Mexico since then, and they still live there.
    I’m the oldest of four. My siblings all now live in the United States. Growing up, my dad was an entrepreneur as well, and he had a number of different businesses, starting with a chocolate factory and a meat factory, ranches, pig farms, and car dealerships.
    So, I was exposed to different businesses. I worked with him in the summers and traveled extensively with my family. I was exposed to different cultures and different history, which had a profound impact on me growing up. I had to deal with different people and different languages. I speak three languages: German, Spanish, and English. I went to a German school in Mexico, where classes were taught in both German and Spanish.
    I was always very involved in sports growing up, primarily swimming. I was national champion in ’76 in 100 and 200 meters backstroke.
    I was also very active in equestrian events. My horseback riding spanned many years. While I was living in Mexico, I represented Mexico in junior events. The United States and Canada would bring their riders to Mexico, and we would travel to the United States and compete there as well. After I came to the United States for college, I continued to compete throughout Texas while I went to school.
    I’m also an avid snow skier.  We try to go skiing at least twice a year – usually in Jackson Hole. However, now that I’m getting a bit older, golf has become my passion. I am also a very competitive tennis player but my body can’t play as much tennis as I used to. I love sports.
    And I love to spend time with my family. I have a great wife of 26 years, Cynthia, and two boys, Eric and Stefan.  Eric, 20, is a junior at Trinity majoring in electrical engineering.  Stefan, 19, is a freshman at the University of Denver and is also studying electrical engineering. I’ve got two engineers following in my footsteps!
What are the things you’re proud of?
    I’m proud of my family. I have a great wife. We met at Trinity when I was a senior and she was a sophomore. We married right after she graduated from college in 1988. Our two wonderful sons continue to be the joy of our lives.
    I am also really proud of growing my company from 15 employees to 93 and expanding our product lines. There is a definite sense of pride as I drive by the many beautiful buildings in San Antonio knowing that Beckwith played a part in them.

Are your sons going to be coming to work at Beckwith?
    I don’t know. There’s always that possibility. They can, but I believe strongly that they need to get experience on their own, to actually work for somebody, not work for a family member or their dad. So, that’s the intent. If by that time, they’re interested in the business, then there’s definitely a possibility if they wanted to, as long as they work hard, learn the business and what it takes to run a business.

What community organizations or activities are you and your family involved in?
    My wife, through the company, has been really involved in nonprofit organizations. We’re very involved with the student ministry at our church, University United Methodist Church, and developing those programs. Cynthia serves on several different boards such as Impact San Antonio, an all-women’s organization that awards $100,000 grants every year to nonprofit organizations in Bexar and surrounding counties. They have awarded over $1 million in the past 10 years. She also serves on the board of the Cancer Center Council.
    We are both members of the Trinity University Board of Visitors. I have been on Trinity’s Engineering Board of Advisors for many years and really enjoy staying involved with my alma mater.
    Cynthia has also really enjoyed tutoring kindergarteners at Lockehill Elementary School.
    My kids are very involved in the Student Ministry. Over the years, they have helped rebuild homes for those in need in San Antonio as well as other cities and have gone on mission trips to Costa Rica.

What challenges have you faced in your life and how did you overcome them?
    I was fairly young when I bought the business and was involved with people who had been in the industry for a long time. I had to earn their confidence and their respect because they had been doing this for much longer than I had. So, it was tough trying to get their approval. Whereas before we were co-workers, now they’re my employees.
    The way I approached that was by always respecting them and knowing what the business was about, but also what the issues were that needed to be taken care of, and coming up with solutions, and getting their feedback. It’s more of a team effort. I always asked for their opinions, their solutions, and their comments.
    We’ve been through some tough times with our manufacturers.  They have not always provided the most competitive product in the marketplace but we still had to compete.  We succeeded because we provide great customer service. At the end of the day, we are in the service business.
    Products are important, yes, but in the end, it’s how you take care of your customers with the products you have that differentiate you from the rest.  The only way we have been successful in doing this well for so long is by having great employees who serve great customers.

What about challenges you have personally faced? For example, your athletic accomplishments are quite a feat; what challenges did you face competing in sports on those levels?
    Those early days of swimming weren’t easy. Teenagers like to sleep in!  I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning and swim for two hours and then come back again in the afternoon, after I had finished school and homework, and then swim another two and a half hours. That was tough.
    But I always looked for the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that if I worked hard I would be rewarded for it.

What about your travels? Do you go back home very much? Have you been to Germany to see where your mother’s side of the family is from?
    My parents still live in Mexico City and have a home there that’s their primary residence. I don’t travel there much, because they come up here. They have a house here in the United States so I don’t need to go down to Mexico to see them.
    However, we’ve now been asked by one of our manufacturers to become the master distributor for the whole country of Mexico. In order to get all our systems in place, I will likely be traveling there more often. 
    As far as Germany is concerned, we traveled there at least every two years when we were young to spend the summers with my mom’s family.  Now as an adult, Cynthia and I have traveled there several times and have taken our boys with us as well. It is a beautiful country. –mp

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Sue Johnson sjohnson@constructionnews.net