Thomas Hudgin on Leadership, Millennials and the Business of Design

To say Thomas Hudgin is a renaissance man is perhaps an understatement.

A co-founder of Glaxo (part of GlaxoSmithKline), Thomas Hudgin has 30 years of experience in senior management. He is currently President of Wilmington Quality Associates and frequently keynotes at conventions, teaching business management skills.

In addition to his extensive business experience, Thomas is a retired Navy Commander, accomplished pilot, sailor, novelist, musician and llama farmer (yes, you read that right).


Thomas describes himself as an “adventuresome, high-achieving alpha type, who strives for excellence, yet is a compassionate, intent listener and influences people to exceed their expectations.” We caught up with him to discuss his thoughts on leadership, building success and the business of design.

What expertise are you bringing to the table that is especially relevant to the design field?

TH: Because of my collaborations with numerous signage, printing and design conferences nationwide, I have come to understand the challenges of the current design market. I have been able to create and implement successful, competitive, business management techniques that have set the stage to move design organizations ahead of their competition.

You teach that creating a vision for yourself, your team and your firm is key to ascending to number one. Why is that?

TH: Visionary, global and long range thinking play major roles in out-performing the competition. Most design firms have the same equipment, same technology, same sales channels, same competitive products, services and the same strategies. To be competitive, design firm leadership must have a vision—a dream—of where they want their business to be next year, in the next two years, the next five years and the next 10 years.

Companies have to be extraordinarily different and superior in their ability to organize new business paths, find new customers, communicate, encourage, influence and energize their workforce. It also is important to be able to create and maintain loyal customer relationships through superior service.

Your team must be ambitious and aggressive to move into the top spot. I often ask questions like: “What do you think your sales will be in March 2022?” Those who have no answers will be left behind in the swamp of competition struggling to keep their heads above water. To be on top, you must be driven by fulfilling a dream of being the best at what you do.

What characterizes the right competitive mindset for design leadership to possess, and why is it important to cultivate?

TH: One of the most important mindsets is to focus on how to help your immediate and end customers become more successful. Too often, design organizations focus on just the technical needs of the purchaser and not on their target audiences. There is also a tendency to sell just the technical advances of a product or design and neglect the development of a personal relationship with the customer. Become a personal friend with your customers; you’re in this together.

What issues do you see currently facing design firm leaders in regard to hiring and retaining talent?

TH: At the top of my list of issues is hiring people who are not customer-focused. That is an issue that will haunt the company down the road. Other issues are: not treating everyone as equally valuable, not giving employees the opportunity to express ideas for improvement on a regular basis, not keeping all employees inform of management’s goals, not showing appreciation effectively and not giving employees opportunities for growth and learning new skills.

What role should mentoring play, and why is it important to retaining talent?

TH: Employees want to feel comfortable in their jobs and know that they are making a difference. At the same time, they want to be certain they are meeting and exceeding their superior’s expectations. The mentor plays a pivotal role in building employee self-confidence and demonstrating the quality of work expected and the level of freedom to try new things without the risk of being reprimanded. In essence, the role builds trust and respect among all employees.

Why is this topic of how to work with millennials getting so much media coverage?

TH: Millennials are now replacing the retiring baby boomers. They are here en masse. Millennial employees (age 18-35) comprise nearly fifty percent of our workforce today, and their numbers are growing.

Most are educated, energetic, culturally diverse, creative and technically savvy—but they also tend to be job-hoppers due to boredom and some even expect a reward for just showing up. The challenge is to hire the right people and keep them motivated, engaged and earn their trust. They are hungry to fit in with the company’s vision, the big picture, and to make a tangible difference in the company’s growth vision.

We have to make adjustments in our mindset now to be able to compete effectively. We have no choice. We must find ways to integrate this mass of talented people into our current work philosophy and business ethics. This can be done and is being done with exciting results throughout the business world.

What do you see as the most exciting or positive aspect of working with millennials?

TH: Unlike the older generation, they are comfortable “coloring outside of the lines” and aren’t afraid of falling on their faces in the process. This kind of talent and energy is a critical ingredient in becoming more successful in our current, highly competitive, fast moving, business environment. Since they comprise the mainstream of our workforce today, we now have the opportunity to tap into this gold mine and soar to heights beyond our dreams.

Has being a pilot, sailor and llama farmer informed your consulting and speaking?

TH: The spirit of adventure and the attitude of “I can do that” defines my drive for success. I am an achiever. I love challenges. I also sailed a 38-foot ketch across the Atlantic to Europe with two others and flew in a hang glider from atop of Mt. Blanc in France, to name a few. That kind of drive to push beyond the ordinary that helped me become successful in the business world. Training llamas taught me patience, and the value of timely appraisals in developing mutual trust.


Tap into speaker Thomas Hudgin’s expansive knowledge base and specialized training tools at the SEGD Business of Designevent in Portland, April 27–28. Register now!

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