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Making it in Big Sky: Thomas Heating and Sheet Metal

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Terry Thomas (pictured) and his twin brother Lance started their business in 1978. Over forty years later, they still operate under the principles of treating people right and following through on their word. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

By Bella ButlerEDITORIAL ASSISTANT

You’d be strapped to find a long-time local that hasn’t heard of the Thomas twins.

“Bo” Lance and “Bo” Terry, as they are commonly known, ventured to Big Sky in 1979 after starting their heating, ventilation and air conditioning business at the tender age of 15. After forty years of business in Big Sky, they still like to keep it old school. With no computer and no website, they operate Thomas Heating and Sheet Metal from the buttons of a flip phone.

The brothers and their only employee and lifelong friend, “Bo” Tim Pattison, travel between Bozeman and West Yellowstone with the simple mission of making sure people are happy—to them, business is personal, as most of their relationships with clients have turned into close friendships.

Explore Big Sky: How have you grown your business since it’s conception?

Terry Thomas: We’ve been really productive over the years. We are a small company, so I just like to do one job at a time.

EBS: How has your business evolved over the years?

T.T.: I never used to say no; I would just do everything. Now I am getting a little older, a little wiser, and there are certain jobs that I look at and just go ‘Oh man.’ The ability to say no [is important.] I like working for people I know, I believe in, I trust.

EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?

T.T.: Overhead—insurance and work [compensation] is so expensive. People wonder why [it’s so expensive] but everything goes up. You have to keep it tight.

EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?

T.T.: I first moved here in the early 80s. I first moved here because I heard the hunting was good and there was no work. I love the people here, I’m a people person, and I like to think I have the gift of gab. I love the locals here, and most of the people I meet are pretty awesome people, and I like to BS with people. I’m a talker. I’ve watched [Big Sky] grow, and I’ve watched it evolve, and some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but mostly good.  

EBS: What are some of the challenges that come with doing your job during the winter?

T.T.: [In the winter] we do service work. The challenge is we are getting old, and we’re limited.

EBS: What is the most memorable moment you’ve had in Big Sky as a resident or business owner?

T.T.: I met John F. Kennedy Jr. and he was a way cool guy. We shot pool and drank beer down at the Half Moon years ago. He was staying at a house down the street and the furnace broke down so I got to go fix it.

EBS: Do you remember your first customer you had?

T.T.: I worked for my father, but we started our business in ‘78. We went to go bid a job and it was a church, and I think it was a Baptist church because the guy was Southern. We got up on the roof and looked around. They had a baptism pool up at the podium. My dad gives the guy a bid and said, ‘Son of a bitch, you’ve got a jacuzzi up there!’ I’m thinking, we are never going to get this job. We got the job.

EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

T.T.: It was from my father, probably when I was a kid: Take care of people, and do what you say you’re going to do at the price you said you were going to do it. My philosophy is to respect people.

EBS: What is it like working with your brother.

T.T.: He’s A and I’m B, but we make it work. We work together and we live together. He is totally like my mom and I am totally like my dad. My dad was laid back and my mom was serious and by the book. We are twins, and we make it work. I couldn’t do my business without him.

EBS: Where do you see your business going in the next 10 years?

T.T.: Retirement! You know, we are going to do work for certain people, but you have to know when to say no. I’m going to work until I tip over, but I should probably tone it down a little bit.  

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