LA GRANDE — Jeff Thomas knew the broken alarm system meant a sleepless night lay ahead of him.
Thomas, then the manager of La Grande’s Bi-Mart, just arrived at his store on a Sunday afternoon in February about six years ago after being notified its alarm system was malfunctioning. The problems were too severe to repair that day.
So Thomas spent the night and much of the morning at the unoccupied store monitoring the alarm to make sure it did not cause any problems. To break up the tedium he even watched a DVD.
It was one of about half a dozen times Thomas had to stay at his store overnight for a range of reasons. He never slept any of those nights and doubted he could have if he tried.
“There is too much noise,” he said. “There are a lot of sounds in a big building like that.”
Thomas’ overnight stays at Bi-Mart exhausted him but now look like mere speed bumps in a fulfilling career, which ended Saturday, Feb. 27, with his retirement. Thomas stepped down after a 43-year career with the Bi-Mart Corporation.
“It has been a great company to work for. There are so many wonderful people I have met,” Thomas said.
Thomas had no idea he would someday be a manager when he took a position as a hardware clerk at Medford’s Bi-Mart in 1978 when he was only 18. He worked there 18 years before starting his administrative career, taking a position as a second assistant at Gresham’s store. A year later, the company transferred Thomas to the La Grande store, where he was promoted to first assistant. He became manager of the store here in 2002.
Thomas became a familiar face to customers, a manager who spent relatively little time in his upstairs office, preferring to be on the main floor with customers and employees. His friendly, upbeat nature and quick wit made it easy for him to connect. This was evident three days before his retirement when Thomas saw a man in the checkout line with bags of rock salt in his car.
“Are you going to use those as sandbags?” Thomas asked with a big grin, which the customer returned.
Thomas always looked for openings, such as the rock salt provided, to connect.
“They break the ice with people,” he said.
Thomas enjoyed meeting customers almost as much as helping his employees with everything from stocking products to taking inventory and cleaning.
“He liked working in the trenches with us,” said Tim Mustoe of Umatilla County, who worked under Thomas at La Grande’s Bi-Mart for about five years.
Sporting goods clerk Mike Perry, who worked 17 years for Thomas, said it was a delight to work for him.
“If you can’t work with Jeff, you can’t work for anyone. He is the best,” said Perry, who also retired Feb. 27.
La Grande Bi-Mart employee Linda Stuplich said Thomas’ store has an unusually supportive atmosphere, which he played a big role in perpetuating.
“This is truly a family. If someone is down we pull together to help them,” Stuplich said.
Mustoe said Thomas not only knows how to connect with people but also is an adept problem solver.
“If a customer had an issue he knew how to make things right,” Mustoe said.
Thomas enjoyed his career but he admitted that much of the stress of managing a store made it hard to sleep at times. Speaking Tuesday, he said he is sleeping much better now without the worry of getting calls about store emergencies.
“I don’t have to sleep with my cellphone next to my head anymore,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to Thomas’ stress level during his final year but did not prevent La Grande’s Bi-Mart from faring well. He said sales were strong at his store and the company’s stores in general. People have spent more time at home during the pandemic, where they are focusing on activities such as renovation work and gardening, all of which Bi-Mart carries many supplies for.
“We had a banner year,” Thomas said.
The products carried by Bi-Mart, which opened in La Grande in the late 1980s, have changed significantly since its first store opened in 1955. Thomas said the corporation was one of the Northwest’s leading tire dealers in the 1950s and 1960s and continued carrying them into the 1970s. Bi-Mart stores also carried many appliances in its early years before phasing them out.
Thomas owes not only his career but his family to Bi-Mart. He met his wife, Janine, at Medford’s Bi-Mart where she was an employee. Today, the couple are the parents of four sons, three who live in La Grande, and have four grandchildren.
Jeff Thomas said he and Janine have no plans to leave La Grande because of their family ties and their many friends here.
“We will stay here forever,” he said.