Thomas & Howard Company, Inc.

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Thomas & Howard Company, Inc.

209 Flint Lake Road
Columbia, South Carolina 29223
Telephone: (803) 788-5520
Fax: (803) 699-9097
Web site:

Private Company
Employees: 275
Sales: $300 million (2007 est.)
NAIC: 424410 General Line Grocery Merchant Wholesalers

Thomas & Howard Company, Inc., is a leading grocery distributor for convenience stores and restaurants in the Carolinas and Georgia. Its brands include Companions, Cortona, and Nugget. The company operates distribution centers in Columbia, Newberry, and Spartanburg, South Carolina. (The "Thomas & Howard" name is also used by some cash-and-carry stores in North Carolina; though derived from the original Thomas & Howard, they are separately owned.) The Columbia, South Carolina-based company is regularly counted among the state's 20 largest privately owned corporations.

In the 20th century, the original Thomas & Howard grew to be one of the leading grocery distributors in the Carolinas, with more than three-dozen facilities in five states. These were operated with various partners. The founding Thomas family sold its majority holding in most of these businesses in 1956.


Thomas & Howard Company dates back to a business formed in Durham, North Carolina, in 1897 by C. C. Thomas. C. L. Howard joined him as a partner in 1909. Another individual, J. E. Timberlake, eventually became president of the company and is credited with expanding the firm through much of the South.

Part of the growth came through acquisitions of other venerable grocery wholesalers, such as Overman & Co. of Salisbury, North Carolina, which Thomas & Howard bought in 1930, the same year it relocated its headquarters to Gastonia, North Carolina. Overman & Co. had been established in 1890 by W. H. Overman. Another 1930 acquisition was the Peeler Co., also of Salisbury; the nearby Emerson Brantingham warehouse was added two years later. In 1935, Thomas & Howard opened a facility south of the state line in Darlington, South Carolina. It was soon in nearby Conway as well. The Statesville, North Carolina, warehouse was razed following a fire in December 1945, but soon replaced with a new $65,000, 20,000-square-foot brick and tile building.


Following the death of C. C. Thomas, his interests passed on to his daughter, Margaret Thomas Boyst. Her own daughter, Jessamine Boyst Bowles, next inherited the holdings and her husband, Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, Jr., led the firm in the mid-1950s on his way to becoming a well-known businessman and politician.

In 1952 the firm's headquarters were relocated from Gastonia to Greensboro, where Thomas & Howard had had a presence since 1917. By the mid-1950s, Thomas & Howard had 38 facilities in five states and employed 1,200 people. The firm was described as the "largest service wholesale grocers in the world." The descendants of C. C. Thomas retained a majority interest in most of the 38 separate partnerships until they sold their holdings to dozens of different buyers, including many store managers and other key employees, in December 1956. At this time, cofounder C. L. Howard remained a minority owner.

The businesses that operated under the Thomas & Howard banner were then grouped in three divisions. The North CarolinaVirginia division was led by C. H. Wentz and W. D. Flintom of Salisbury and Charlotte, respectively. The Charleston, South Carolina, division was run by L. B. Williams, Sr., and the unit based in Columbia, South Carolina, was headed by T. H. Timberlake. These managers acquired most of the Thomas family's shareholdings in 1956. At the same time, a couple of key employees from the Greensboro operation also sold their minority holdings in the business.


Thomas & Howard began opening "Cash & Carry" branches, or self-service warehouses, in the late 1960s. One in Durham was followed quickly by one in Burlington, North Carolina, in 1968. In the early 1970s, Thomas & Howard had such seven facilities in South Carolina, and a total of 18 warehouses in all. The Charleston operations had been sold to Wetterau Incorporated in 1969.

Thomas & Howard's Darlington, South Carolina, office merged with the Hite Co. in 1970. The Hite Co. had been founded in 1916 as the Massey-Hite Grocery Co. In the 1930s, the business's offices in Conway and Florence became separate companies; the latter continued to be called Massey-Hite until 1965, when it moved to a new 40,000-square-foot facility. The Hite Co. had 32 employees in the mid-1960s.

The convenience store industry was doubling in size every few years throughout the 1970s. Much of this growth came from food sales, which offered store operators higher margins than fuel. While the company tied its fortunes to a rising industry, the arrival of big-box discounters such as Sam's Club in the 1980s provided a new source of competition. The changing grocery business made independent distributors like Thomas & Howard as valuable as ever to independent groceries and small regional chains, which sought help in matching the purchasing power of giant supermarket chains.


By the 1980s, Thomas & Howard consisted of three main sites along Interstate 26 in South Carolina: Columbia, Newberry, and Spartanburg. As an official told the trade journal ID: The Voice of Foodservice Distribution, the Newberry unit shifted from groceries to foodservice in 1984, reflecting the strength of the restaurant industry in the middle of the state. By concentrating on such multiunit operators as the Bojangle's chicken and biscuit chain, the Newberry division increased its annual revenues from $3 million to more than $55 million by 1991, and an estimated $100 million by 1996. In addition to restaurants, Thomas & Howard was increasing its trade with healthcare providers and school districts.


Founded in Durham, North Carolina, the partnership of C. C. Thomas and C. L. Howard was soon joined by J. E. Timberlake, who was responsible for the growth of the company throughout the South. He was a man of high moral principles from which he would not deviate, no matter how tempting the reward was made to sound. His knowledge of the grocery business and his attention to even the smallest details made him a man admired by all. He believed in the dignity of work and in the golden rule as the key to business as well as social relationships. The strong foundation he gave the company has enabled it to survive and prosper for more than 100 years.

In 1986, Thomas & Howard Company of Charlotte was acquired by Hickory's Merchants Distributors, Inc., which merged it with its Institution Food House subsidiary. In the same year, grocery distribution giant the Nash Finch Company bought two of the North Carolina operations, Thomas & Howard Company of Rocky Mount, Inc., and Thomas & Howard Company of Hickory, Inc. In addition to servicing supermarkets through a 246,000-square-foot distribution center, the latter had begun selling health and beauty aids and general merchandise through its T&H Service Merchandisers subsidiary, which had a 130,000-square-foot facility. The Rocky Mount business operated a 190,000-square-foot warehouse. Publicly traded Nash Finch, based in Minneapolis, had begun to expand to the South by buying M.H. McLean Wholesale Grocery Company, Inc., of Lumberton, North Carolina. However, in 1995 it sold the North Carolina Thomas & Howard units to convenience store supplier H.T. Hackney, explaining it preferred to focus on its independent supermarket distribution business.

In 1997, the U.S. Distribution Journal ranked Thomas & Howard Co., Inc., as one of the leading tobacco/candy convenience store distributors in terms of SKUs carried (it had more than 21,000). The Newberry division accounted for $109 million of sales, according to ID. This unit was servicing 1,400 convenience store, restaurant, and institutional accounts. Sales to fast-food chains made up a little more than half of the division's total.

The combined company had annual sales of $326 million in 2000, making it the country's 18th largest convenience store distributor, according to Convenience Store News. It was serving more than 2,100 locations in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.


C. C. Thomas forms business in Durham, North Carolina.
C. L. Howard becomes Thomas's partner.
Thomas family sells its majority holding in the affiliated businesses to the stores' managers, others.
Charleston division is sold to Wetterau Inc.
Newberry division focuses on foodservice accounts.
Thomas & Howard sells North Carolina operations.
Revenues are more than $300 million.

Several years later, the privately owned business remained one of South Carolina's leading private companies, and one of the largest independent grocery distributors in the country. It had survived a challenging century, with massive shifts in the economics and technology of the grocery business.

Frederick C. Ingram


Columbia; Newberry; Spartanburg.


Biggers Brothers Inc.; Merchants Distributors Inc.; PYA/Monarch, Inc.; SYSCO Corporation.


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