Isiah Thomas on His International Corporation and the NBA’s Evolution

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Last week, Insider spoke to NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas about a series of developments within his international holding company, Isiah International.

In a phone interview tied to a recent expansion of his utility vegetation management business, Gre3n LLC, which earlier this month won a bid to work with the Dixie Electric Membership Corporation (DEMCO), Thomas discussed how his ownership of Cheurlin Champagne led to his broader entry into the agricultural space as well as the cannabis industry.

A two-time NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas also reflected at length, following the 2022 NBA Finals, on the evolution of professional basketball relative to his playing days of the ’80s and ’90s.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does this deal with DEMCO mean for the progression of Gre3n LLC on the ground, and from a high level?

Well it gives us the opportunity to continue to expand our footprint nationwide, and what we’ve successfully been able to do is we’ve won the trust of several utility companies, starting with Entergy, our first onboard. Now we’re working with DEMCO. We’ve worked with Southern Companies. And so as we continue to expand our footprint in the south, in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, moving into Georgia, the goal is to continue to expand and move to the East Coast, Midwest region. But DEMCO, this bid definitely solidifies our safety record and also, I would say, let the business community know in the veg. management space that we’re a real player.

I wanted to ask sort of a background question. Your father was the first Black supervisor at International Harvester in Chicago.

Ah, yes.

How did that element of your background inform your broader business sense, and in particular lead you into utility vegetation management?

You know, when you’re a kid, you don’t realize the influence that your parents are having on you, and the things that they say around the house, the things that you watch but you don’t realize that you’re learning. So seeing my father, particularly during those times in the ’60s, watching him move up the ladder, and then understanding the social times and the political times during that era. He definitely had a huge influence on my business understanding and also how to navigate in some difficult spaces, racially. So his influence was huge. But again, at the time you didn’t know it. You had no idea the impact that he was truly having, with his words and also his work ethic.

What led you into the cannabis and hemp industry in 2020, and what have you made of the progression of One World Products to this point?

You know, it was a series of things. It wasn’t just one thing. So being in the vegetation management space, and also being in the champagne space, at that time, I didn’t realize that I was in the agricultural space. The champagne space, where we cultivate and grow in Champagne, and we have 200 acres over in the Aube region of Champagne, which is the oldest region. Why is champagne called champagne? Because it comes from that region, and you have a certain amount of soil, and the sun and the climate gives excellent growing opportunities for the grapes that makes the champagne. Now fast forward, in the vegetation management space, and you’re still understanding agriculture, tree trimming, how it works with the utilities. And believe it or not … And I know this is a long winded answer to the cannabis space [laugh], but believe it or not, my Detroit Edison safety stuff came into play on the veg. management space also.

But then, when I ventured into the cannabis space, that really came from my son and my daughter, who, as you know, the younger generation fully understood the benefits of cannabis, and didn’t see it as a class one felony drug, the way it had been marketed. And the more research that I started doing around the plant itself, connecting it to the agricultural space, then I started seeing the benefits of not only what the plant has for working with our body, in terms of our endocannabinoid system that’s present in every human being, and your CB1 and CB2 receptors that’s present in every human being, that works specifically with this plant.

It’s almost as if Mother Nature put this plant here for us to use. And then I started looking at, “Okay, how did this plant affect the environment?” And that’s when you got into carbon reduction, and the uses of it replacing plastics, and how at one time in our country’s history, hemp was the food product. It was the fuel product. It was the environmental product. It was the textile product. And before plastics, it was the plastics product. So, you know, Mother Nature now is saying, “Hey, time’s up for the synthetic things that we’ve been using.” And now she’s asking for us to use the bio-friendly products and plants that she’s put on the earth.

What has the reception of the automobile industry been toward the move on your part to have hemp be a plastic replacement?

Unbelievably enthusiastic. It’s like if you put the Silver Dome, the Palace, Joe Louis Arena, and Little Caesars Arena together. If you put all those crowds in one building, that’s how enthusiastic they’ve welcomed and wanted it. And why? Because like every industry and every business, everyone’s looking to reduce their carbon footprint and be friendly to the environment. Stellantis is the first group that jumped on board with us, and we started piling in the program. And since then, we’ve had significant conversations with GM and Ford also. So, my five-year business plan that I laid out quickly morphed into a five-month business plan. [Laugh].

[Laugh].

That’s how receptive they’ve been to what we are moving.

You know, as the manager of an international corporation, how do you handle that day-to-day delegation, being so diversified in your portfolio, and to what extent are you hands-on and active in the individual companies?

So I am an owner-operator, and I am a CEO of all the entities internationally. Fortunately enough, for myself, being in sports and entertainment and playing with the Detroit Pistons has given us an international platform that we can move across the globe with name recognition. So operating in France and in Europe, Latin America, and here domestically in the United States, and also in Africa, has given us a unique perspective, not only of the world culturally and socially, and the business environment on each continent and sometimes in each country varies so differently.

But having a sports and entertainment background and having traveled to these places gives you a unique understanding of how you can continue to bring people together. So my involvement is very extensive. Thus, you know, the company, Isaiah International. Now, delegation. How do I delegate? Of course, you have to sign good managers in in each place, and you delegate responsibilities. You hold them accountable, you set goals, you make sure that the values of the company is always presented and represented internationally, and thus far we’ve been successful in doing that.

Isiah Thomas magic johnson

Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson in 1989.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images


You were at games throughout this year’s Finals. Does a part of you wish you had come up as a player at this time, this more guard-centric time, or what have you made evolution of the game?

Absolutely. [Laugh]. When I came into the game, a scoring point guard like myself, a small scoring point guard that scored and assisted, was really unheard of. Now, Magic Johnson was accepted as a big guard at 6’9. And if you remember, when I came in, all the point guards were, you know, 6’7, 6’8, 6’9, because everyone was replicating what Magic had done. When I came in as a small guard, we were supposed to pass the ball to the big man in the post and go stand in the corner. Joe, Vinnie, and I said, “Okay, well, we can shoot.” [Laugh].

[Laugh].

So, small guys scoring a basketball, shooting jump shots, playing from the perimeter and winning from the perimeter. At that time, the Pistons, we went so against the grain, because you were supposed to throw it to the big guys inside and let them do all the work. Fast forward, now today, the game has totally flip flopped. Small guards are expected to score, and not only are they expected to score, but they’ve changed all the rules to benefit the small guard so he can score and shoot more. And had I come along in this era, I definitely would’ve had … you know, I had success in my era, but I definitely would’ve had more success in this era.

Isiah Thomas

Thomas following the Pistons’ championship in 1990.

NBAE/Getty Images


In addition to my great appreciation for you as a lifelong Pistons fan, I have to thank you for teaching me the cutting power of a smile.

[Laugh].

The strength of it, and what it can convey. How has that element of your disposition allowed you to succeed in business in the way you have?

So, I would give that to my mom. Again, you don’t realize how you’re being impacted, until you get older and you realize the gifts that your mom and dad gave you. And my mom, for as poor as we were, in as difficult of times that we were having as a family, she was always, always positive and found a way to find humor, laughter, and song in all of our sadness. And so throughout my life, I really just have always had a positive and happy disposition. And I remember when I was in … well, I don’t remember what grade I was in, but when I was younger, my mom gave me a little piece of paper and it said, “Love conquers all.” And I still use it and remember it to this day.

So I just try to be happy, and the life that I’m leading now, hell, I didn’t even know this life existed when I was young. You know? So I didn’t know, I couldn’t even dream of the life that I’m leading now, because we were so poor. So to have a refrigerator full of food, I can pay my bills on time, and if I needed to get in the car and drive somewhere, I can do that. And I got a place to live. Really that’s all I ever wanted. And, you know, my wife teases me sometimes because still, today, I’ll open up the refrigerator, and I’ll just stand there and look at it and be like, “We got a lot of food.” [Laugh].

[Laugh].

So I give that to my mom.

In closing here, as the international LLC expands, what do you look forward to out of the progression of your portfolio?

The first thing is to uplift my family out of generational poverty. And, as you can see, it’s a family-owned business. We’ve been in business since the early ’80s, but officially, starting in ’90. But there’s so much poverty in my family, nieces, nephews, who are still below the poverty line. And we were so below the poverty line, we wasn’t even counted by the Census Bureau. So the goal is to continue to educate nieces, nephews, keep our family business going, but also in spreading out internationally, connect different communities, different cultures, different races, different people, politically, socially, and continue the dialogue.

I would say that’s the most unique gift that I’ve been been blessed with and given, operating in this space, where you in the US, Latin America, Africa, and Europe, where now you’re connecting the dots politically and socially and having meaningful conversation, and realizing that in all of these places, you know, we all really do have the same problems. We all have the same problems with our kids. We all have the same problems individually. No one is really a hundred percent whole. Everybody’s got some type of flaw, and working through those flaws is what I found most rewarding. So what do I hope to accomplish? You know, educate my family, and continue to connect the world, and hopefully make it a better place.



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