From start-up to stalwart: The story of Telgian CEO James Tomes

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IFSJ sits down with Telgian’s CEO James Tomes to find out how the once small fire safety firm became an industry powerhouse

In the dynamic world of fire safety and protection, few leaders are as well-versed and accomplished as James Tomes, President and CEO of Telgian Holdings, Inc. Having ascended the ranks within the company since 1990, Tomes has played an instrumental role in shaping Telgian’s strategic vision, cementing its reputation as a trusted industry leader.

He manages a company that is a leading fire safety firm, and is also actively involved in influencing industry standards and advocating for clients through participation in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code development committees.


Tomes joined the small fire safety consulting firm started by his father, Bill Tomes, in 1990 right after finishing college. He intended to transform the four-person company into a significant player in the industry. His vision capitalised on the growing trend of big-box retail, an ‘exploding market’ that presented unique fire safety risks and the firm rode the wave of big-box retail growth across the United States. However, the journey was not without obstacles.

Telgian’s singular focus on code consulting risked the loss of a significant client due to the absence of in-house design services. This challenge led to a rapid merger with a company led by Russ Leavitt, the now Chair of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “After meeting him three times, I approached him and said ‘Russ, how about a merger?’”, recalls Tomes. Born quite literally on the side of a freeway, this partnership set the stage for Telgian’s future growth.

Over the years, Telgian adapted to customer needs, adding design, engineering, and facility services to their offerings. Today, Telgian, born from this adaptive approach, employs over 400 people.

Tomes cites the firm’s readiness to take risks as a key success driver: “We did what we believed was right for our customers and our people. We weren’t really concerned about what anybody else thought.” The company’s growth from four to 400 employees, achieved without external capital, is a testament to Telgian’s tenacity and discipline. “We don’t have tonnes of cash sitting around… so we’ve had to sometimes do things a bit on a shoestring,” says Tomes. Despite the challenges of self-financing and surviving multiple economic downturns, Telgian has emerged as a leading global brand in fire safety.

Tomes also attributes Telgian’s success to its people-centric approach. “If I’m proud of anything, personally, it’s that I have the wisdom and the foresight to let go and let somebody else take centre stage,” he reflects. This leadership philosophy, he believes, has enabled the company to attract and nurture exceptional talent.

A winning strategy

In his vision for Telgian’s future, Tomes shares his strategic plan: “We don’t need to be the biggest…but our strategic plan is to flat out be the best.” He believes in offering high-quality, high-valued services and taking care of customers across a wide spectrum of needs, from strategic risk discussions to tasks as basic as hanging a tag on an extinguisher.

He underlines Telgian’s unique positioning as a one-stop-shop in the industry, and its intention to leverage this advantage. This unique position, he says, has helped Telgian secure relationships with some of the biggest names in the retail world.

Telgian is also setting its sights on other key markets. The company is making inroads into automated storage and retrieval systems and leading the world in research at UL. “Nobody’s doing what we’re doing right now,” Tomes tells, highlighting the growth potential in e-commerce, a sector where Telgian is utilising its already considerable warehouse and distribution knowledge.

The company is also developing core competencies in many emerging technologies and associated risks including lithium batteries and energy storage, addressing their unique fire risks: “We’re doing a lot of research in many areas. We want to go where we can add value.”

On Telgian’s approach to market selection, he says that the company does not shy away from standard fire safety tasks but finds its true value in solving unique problems. The goal, he says, is to provide high value to customers: “We really strive to be high value to our customers.” This strategy, he believes, avoids creating a ‘mill’ culture and instead fosters a partnership approach.

Telgian and the NFPA

The NFPA is an integral part of Telgian’s identity. “I’m a firm believer that when you can align yourselves with doing the right thing that’s also good for you and your customers, it’s just a win-win,” says Tomes. The company’s relationship with the NFPA began with Tomes’ father, who was known as a code ‘guru’, establishing Telgian’s national reputation.

Telgian Full scale fire testing
Telgian’s full scale fire testing

Over the years, Telgian has not just been involved in code work and committees but has been at the forefront of cutting-edge research and full-scale fire testing. “With the knowledge we bring, we help develop the national standards. We help form what actually goes into them because of our expertise,” Tomes explains.

Giving back to the NFPA is crucial to Telgian, he says. The company actively serves on committees and offers its time as instructors for NFPA classes worldwide. Tomes believes this commitment to industry involvement strengthens both Telgian and the wider industry.

When dealing with clients, Tomes says this deep understanding of the NFPA standards allows Telgian to speak with authority about compliance. He underlines that his focus is more on risk management than rote compliance, suggesting that effective risk management will result in alternative means and methods rather than cookie-cutter solutions.

“If you really manage your risk, you get effective compliance, if you only manage compliance by cookie-cutter solutions you’re not managing risk” he says. “Life safety is paramount. You can make different decisions about how you want to protect your property. But life safety, getting people out of the building so people don’t get hurt, or even worse, is the ethos we have.”

Ensuring life safety

On the topic of communicating the importance of life safety, Tomes says plainly, “I never scare a customer – I don’t believe in it.” He believes that when it comes to fire protection, spending exorbitantly does not necessarily add value to the business, unlike spending on aesthetics like hotel lobbies or swimming pools. “If I spent an extra 20 bucks on fire protection, that doesn’t add any value to the business. I need to spend the right amount of money,” he explains.

Tomes emphasises that Telgian approaches fire safety as a matter of risk management, acknowledging that businesses must balance investment in fire protection with their revenue and productivity needs. However, he warns that without appropriate investment in fire protection there can be disastrous consequences.

A major concern for Tomes is the ethical issues he sees within the industry, particularly the fear-based selling of unnecessary fire protection equipment. “Our industry takes the fear of fire to sell things to our customers that they don’t need,” he says, expressing his frustration at the practices he has witnessed time and again. He criticises vendors who he perceives as profiting from this fear, advocating for investments in areas that truly need them rather than selling more smoke detectors for the sake of it.

At Telgian, he says, the team continuously asks if their actions are in the best interest of their customers. This gives them the credibility to truly advocate for life safety, “Our customers sense that about us – that we’re here, truly, to advocate for them to ensure safety, life safety, and then help them manage their risk on the property side as to what’s actually important to their business,” Tomes explains. 

Future plans

The CEO hints at the prospect of expanding Telgian through acquisitions, in addition to the ongoing focus on organic growth. He emphasises, however, that any potential acquisitions must be strategic and thoughtful rather than simply an aim to buy revenue. Tomes envisions targeted acquisitions that would extend Telgian’s reach to new geographical markets, including international ones, or industry segments where they currently have a limited presence.

In addition to the company’s expansion, Tomes shares his excitement about developing the company’s operating culture and systems to ensure the success of future growth. The goal is to ensure Telgian’s operating excellence matches its service excellence, making it easier to integrate potential new entities.

Reflecting on the company’s growth from four to 400, Tomes expresses joy in watching the development of both long-standing and new members of the team, reflecting on and appreciating the unique characters who have joined Telgian during its expansion, contributing to its entrepreneurial spirit.

Putting the customer first

In the rapidly evolving fire and safety industry, Tomes has a clear message for his peers: the customer comes first. He emphasises the importance of prioritising customers and addressing their specific needs and risks.

“At the end of the day, it’s their risk. We’re here to advise and educate, and I think sometimes we like to dictate,” he explains, underscoring the idea that professionals in the industry should see themselves as advisors and educators, helping customers understand and manage their risk rather than dictating solutions.

The CEO draws attention to the industry’s tendency to lose sight of the scale of individual businesses and the wealth they represent. Using Elon Musk as an example, he points out that the net worth of one entrepreneur can exceed the total value of the entire fire and safety industry.

However, Tomes doesn’t diminish the importance of the fire and safety industry. Instead, he stresses the vital role it plays. “What we do is so important,” he states, reminding the industry of its significant responsibility in protecting lives and properties.

The mission statement at Telgian reflects this crucial role, with a unique twist: “We save lives and property in partnership with our customers.” By incorporating the word ‘partnership’, Telgian emphasises the centrality of the customer in its operations, a distinguishing factor according to Tomes.

He concludes by critiquing the industry’s customer centricity, suggesting that there is room for improvement. To truly serve their customers and fulfil their roles as lifesavers and protectors, he believes that companies in the fire and safety industry must prioritise the needs and perspectives of their customers above all else.

This exclusive article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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