117. Hero – Bobby Cole, Founder and President at ThinkPLC Transcript

Bobby: 00:00 

I have an innate nature to help people. And when I look back at my biggest accomplishments, it’s not being the best programmer or, being the best business person, it’s I have folks that work for me who are not only are they the best people, but they have succeeded in their careers and to be a part of that has been my why for sure. 

Chris: 00:22 

Welcome to EECO Ask Why, a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics and spotlights heroes to keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefit on products that come to market. Instead, we focused on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. 

Welcome EECO Asks Why today we have a hero episode and we’re very excited to sit and talk with Bobby Cole, who is the founder and president of Think PLC. So welcome Bobby. 

Bobby: 01:02 

Thanks Chris. Appreciate being here, man. 

Chris: 01:04 

So excited to have you on and to get to know you a little bit more for our listeners to get to know you and we love to kick these off Bobby with just you sharing a little bit about your journey to where you’re at now.

Bobby: 01:16 

Yeah What’s funny, Chris is it’s not too far off from your journey. Start off the side to get into computer and electronics engineering as a young person. And Made my way to Old Dominion University for a degree. I think you and I share the same degree. We shared the same classrooms and the same professors and probably both have the same gray hairs because that’s right.

Chris: 01:40 

I thought that was so funny when we were talking to each other, we were like when did you go to school? Wait a minute. We were there together. Oh, you gotta be kidding me. And then when I went, then we put a faces together. Like we did recognize we had some, we were in some classes, it was so such a cool story, man.

Bobby: 01:55 

It is. And then the little nuances of going through such a program that’s pretty rigorous is, Oh, you had Jones for digital electronics, it’s neat to share that, moving away, moving to North Carolina, to start my career off, which is interesting after 9/ 11, trying to find a job as a technician or engineer with no experience. It was interesting at that time, you know what, like maybe some people were experiencing right now. I hope not. 

I Moved to Winston Salem. I got an interesting job with a company called Daifuku ,one of the largest material handling companies in the world. And so I was a hired engineer to help implement a Dell computer plant in Winston-Salem. 

Chris: 02:34 


Bobby: 02:35 

So what a way to get up to speed really quick as a young person. I was right in the mix of it. And then while working at Dell I got involved with a local community college Davidson County community college, and they had been gifted grants to build the automation program.

I think there was some innovation with the college in leadership to see that the manufacturing support had died off from the late nineties with the IT boom. And they were working on building an automation focus program, which I was able to help. Strategically leaving Dell I did that and decided to be a consultant. I really enjoyed seeing new machines, meeting new people and other than being at the same place every day, seeing the same equipment.

And I wanted to be the guy that built it, not just supported it. I was 24 years old teaching at a community college and doing my own thing and that grew to, I had 14 employees by the time I was 27 and I sold that business, believe it or not, I had a a large material handling company that focused in bridge cranes that we built systems for come to me and said, ” We’re spending all this money with you and, we should just buy your business out and make you a manager. And which was a whole world of experience. Like I mentioned before, I could probably author a book and go around to business schools, talk about all the ins and outs of that.

And then, where I’m at with ThinkPLC here is taking years and years of experience, those gray hairs. Like we talked about what works and what don’t and hone in on it. And that’s what I’ve built. It’s about vision leadership and dynamics of being, customer and employee focused.

Chris: 04:11 

Right now where is Think PLC located at? 

Bobby: 04:15 

We’re just South of Winston-Salem in Welcome, North Carolina. And, I had this talk with a guy the other day. He didn’t realize he was coming to a town called Welcome and I was like the sign on the interstate says Welcome with a big arrow on it. Did you just think he was getting off at a friendly place? 

Chris: 04:29 

Do they have the welcome to welcome or just, 

Bobby: 04:32 

okay. There’s a huge song says Welcome to Welcome. I love it. It’s such a nice little town we’re we’re just minutes outside of downtown Winston- Salem. A lot of manufacturing down here, a lot of good people down there.

Chris: 04:43 

That’s awesome. So you’ve been there with Think PLC for a couple of years now, right? 

Bobby: 04:48 

Yes. Yep. 

Chris: 04:49 

Okay. That’s great. That’s great now. And I know you serve a lot of different industries and what are you seeing out there as some of the greatest challenges that’s coming down the pipeline? 

Bobby: 05:01 

Oh, gosh, quickly connecting everything together. These plants, want everything connected and they want to be able to see either information, people have finally figured out that you go home at night they still need to see what’s going on with our machinery. And that’s the big one and our customers and our business in general is, getting employees and getting employees that are of the holistic caliber, which means that not just a design guide, not just a PLC programmer, a guy who can, they blame it on the PLC, not working. You always hear that one in our business, but it turns out that it was a, maybe the variable frequency drive that was causing it, but we can’t throw our hands up and say that’s not what we do. The changes and challenges are building that up.

 Chris: 05:43 

It’s harder and harder to find that talent and the people that can go multi-disciplined we were talking to a gentleman earlier in other episodes about, don’t just put yourself in a box of I’m just a PLC programmer. And I think that’s what I’m hearing you say.

Bobby: 05:57 

That’s it don’t paint yourself in a box for sure. There’s, there’s a lot to learn out here in this business, for sure. 

Chris: 06:02 

No doubt. And you said you could write a business book on the different principles, the things you’ve learned throughout your career to get you where you’re at, but for that young engineer, because we do have a lot of the younger generation, that’s listening to us and we’re trying to inspire them. And I know you teach it to community college as well. So may be a great point for some of the people that may be listening, cause they know their professors on this this podcast. But any advice that you’d give them to pursue in that career.

Bobby: 06:28 

Yeah, they appreciate that. I get this a lot actually. They want to get to where I am and it hasn’t come without its challenges for sure. Often say don’t hesitate in what you’re doing, understand there’s no direct path. Don’t be scared to get out and learn how to weld or, help the electrical guys pull wire. It’s not going to hold you back. You know what I mean? I don’t care if you have that bachelor’s degree, you need engineering, go get dirty.

  We need to work on our soft skills as engineers and learning how to engage. And again, we work with our guys internally here with leadership and how we engage with our customers. And in being that entrepreneurial team member, they represent us and that’s true in any business you represent the company, you represent your family, whatever it is. And what does that mean? 

Chris: 07:14 

Yeah. Yeah, no doubt. Great advice. Wonderful advice. And you’ve mentioned earlier when we were talking prior about the way you’re trying to lead, at Think PLC having more of a mentorship type of approach and to really grow people in their careers. Have you had any mentors that stood out to you in the past that have helped shape you to where you are now? 

Bobby: 07:37 

Oh, my gosh. I wouldn’t be here at all without the right people. It’s not by happen chance for sure. Steve Saint comes to mind. Steve was a long-term instructor degree engineer from NC State that worked at Davidson County community college.

He was instrumental in the, bringing me into the college at the time. And I learn from him and how he was such a tough teacher. He was so tough. He gave you zero, you, you earned everything you got, but he was so loving and he cared about everybody that was in his class. And I think that helped folks get through such a tough program with the math and what it takes to do these engineering programs.

He comes to mind Richard Consoli, he’s the president of J.A. King. Known Richard for a long time. He started out as a engineer, at Eastman, chemical started a company just like me and grew it and sold that business. And amongst how good of a engineer he is. And here you are, you’re hearing me talk.

He’s amazing person. And so what I collect too is these people that you, you can model yourself after you only hope to. And those two guys are two people that, I live my life daily saying if I can operate, like they did, I’ll be okay. 

Chris: 08:52 

Absolutely. How about the way you guys have started doing mentorship there at Think PLC and that approach anything you would like to share?

Bobby: 09:01 

Yeah. You have you, and I’ve talked about it before, you know what I’m doing differently this time around in businesses, I’m really studying myself in leadership and that’s fine. Me as, principal, engineer and owner, I’m working on mine but it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t help everyone that worked here, every role that works, at ThinkPLC.

I took a step back from that and started using what I was learning and I’ve started using some of the teachers, some of the books, some of the mentorship, as I mentioned before, we’re having leaders in business come in and talk to our team, everyone not just me, on what it means to be an entrepreneurial team member. What it means to have ethics things of that nature. I think it’s engaging with our employees holistically. 

  Chris: 09:44 

No doubt, Bobby with where you’re at and the things that you’ve done in your career. When do you find that you’re in that moment of flow and it’s, you’re the happiest, you feel like that fulfillment is coming your way for the work that you’re doing, just what are you doing in those moments?

Bobby: 10:05 

A happy celebration for me is a moment of silence in the evenings these days. Yeah, a lot of satisfaction is when I cut those bonus checks every quarter when I genuinely know at this moment, every customer, I know for a fact that they’re completely happy. I know that the people that work for me they’re proud to be where they are. Cause we traveled all over the place and they know that that I’ll get in the weeds with them just as much. 

Chris: 10:30 

No doubt. You can definitely hear man that you really care about the people you work with. 

Bobby: 10:35 

I do. Yep. 

Chris: 10:36 

Yeah. And that shows, I mean, you’ve had success at Think PLC, you guys are growing, how ’bout when you’re at the, cause you do a community college as well. Right?

 So what do you enjoy the most about that? 

Bobby: 10:48 

I like to see the light bulb come on, I’m one of these people that I get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. They just can’t get it. I want everybody to be on the same page. I want everybody to get it. And so I sometimes over challenged myself to make sure when someone just don’t understand that complicated engineering task and I’ve been one thing that I’m proud of over anything I’ve done is I’ve had customers and students give me feedback that I’m grounded in that. That I’ll make a good effort to communicate those things. If you were to come back and look at some of the programs I’ve done and some of the software I’ve written some of the HMI’s that I’ve done, or you, you know, when you get, you would say, wow, I can follow what he was doing.

Simple is better in what we learned in John Hackler’s class, there is a right path forward and you do have to show your work, right? 

Chris: 11:42 

That’s right. That’s right. Absolutely. How about for those kids that you’re teaching there? I’m just curious. Are they looking at manufacturing and industry as positive? Are they excited about it? 

Bobby: 11:55 

I don’t know if they are, when I get there, but I’ll tell you what is great is my involvement still to this day where I’m in and out of the classroom cause I can’t do it full time. And so I come in with experiences, I’ll talk to them. I’ll be like, you know, yesterday I was in Indiana and I was working on a robot and I tell them about experiences and I’ll show them pictures and videos.

I’ll throw up YouTube videos on something I did a year ago at some really neat place. I talked to him about innovating Krispy Kreme donuts, everybody understands, a delicious treat. That, that seems to help. Um, and recently I was a guest speaker at University of TNC for the National Association of Chemical Engineers, which is kind of interesting, but Chem-E’s are becoming controls people these days. So I thought it was a neat ask. And one of the jokes I made early on trying to break up the nervousness I had, standing in front of 300 people, was some of the plants that we work in now or cleaner than some of the dorm rooms on the campus, you know, and just to paint the picture, because you’ll be thinking about those old, dirty manufacturing facilities. That’s what Hollywood’s going to paint it as you always hear about them closing down and that’s not it we got to champion manufacturing. 

Chris: 13:06 

No doubt, man. We had a whole series and we talked about manufacturing perception, and how that’s changing and how it’s not the dark dirty, nasty. There’s some industries that, that is just inherent, if you’re in the basement of a pulp mill, that’s different, but if you’re in manufacturing, in chemical manufacturing, things like you could eat off some of those floors, 

Bobby: 13:26 

yeah. And thank you for being a champion of the industry. It really means a lot what you’re doing with the podcast. Getting them out there. It’s education. 

Chris: 13:33 

I’ll tell you. I just, I love talking to people like you, but also just the engineers that are out there. We were recently interviewing a engineer at OEM and just the passion they have. It’s just a, it’s a cool, it’s cool. That’s what I’m trying to get that out to the next generation, to see, to get excited about it. Cause it’s so many things you can do, 

Bobby: 13:50 

Yeah. Uh, you know, talking to these young people, I say, I’ve sat in the hull of a cruise ship with 5,000 people and press the enter key on my keyboard, to to an S 7- 400 and feel the whole ship shake, you know, with something you did is pretty dang cool. 

Chris: 14:05 

That is cool man. 

Bobby: 14:07 

Yeah. So 

Chris: 14:08 

That’s awesome. Bobby, we love to take these hero episodes and get off the professional path a little bit. And let people learn just about that you outside of work. So how about any hobbies that you have that things you enjoy doing? 

Bobby: 14:22 

I’ll have all the hobbies and sometimes no time to do them. I’m a pretty active person. I’m I’m an active musician. A lot of people wouldn’t know that I’m a drummer. Then that, since I was a kid and so that’s always a blast. I ride mountain bikes . I’m an avid motocross rider. You wouldn’t know that stepping out of the business world. I throw a helmet on and a pair of boots and get my sweat out on a dirt bike sometimes with friends and family and gosh yeah. With COVID the one thing that I’ve learned was that I miss people. I miss going on a Sunday and meet my friends at a local craft brewery and having a laugh. I’m so looking forward to getting back to where you can engage them, the Brew Logics events that we’ve talked about before, where we bring in, we invite everybody, competitors, suppliers, whoever, and we talk about how to implement some of the technology we’re doing over a craft beer and just getting back where we can do that. So much looking forward to it. 

Chris: 15:19

No doubt, man. So you’re a drummer. Do you still play pretty regularly? 

Bobby: 15:23 

I wouldn’t say regularly -anymore, but yes I do. I do quite often getting a group together seems to be harder and harder as you get busier and busier. Yeah, what fun I played for churches and I played in groups and I’ve definitely let it slip over the years. And it’s on the 2021 goals to, you know, again, it’s just like the dirt bike ride. And sometimes, after you’ve laid it all out on the field, as they say, and You’ve done these long days and you’ve, solved these problems throughout the day, you gotta leave it somewhere and, beating on some drums or turning the throttle on, on, on a motorcycle is always a good way to do it.

Chris: 15:57 

Awesome. Now, do you ride  rode bikes too, or just in the dirt? 

Bobby: 16:00 

I have, yeah, I have, I don’t do it as much as I once did. Yeah, I was doing 30 miles a day at one point and definitely went to the dirt. I’m like the jump and get dirty more than I guess I realized. So, When, and in the last cycle of cell phones have kicked me off the sides of the roads, to be honest with you, just me and some trees is good enough for me.

Chris: 16:22 

I hear you, man. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing about the hobbies. How about family? Anything you’d like to share about your family? 

Bobby: 16:29

Oh, my gosh, I’ve got the best family um, son of a coal miner and a paramedic now, nurse. I come from the hardest working people that you can meet. So, using that has been motivation for me to, to be grounded throughout the years. And I can tell you, both of my parents will ground me in a second if I think I’m anything better than anybody. So, um, you know, A brother I’ve got nephews and nieces and we’ve been so fortunate to stay healthy and stay happy. And I get to see them quite often, even though they live in Virginia. So it’s great. 

Chris: 17:04 

Okay. So where is family at, in Virginia? 

Bobby: 17:07 

Yeah. So I grew up in the various Southwest tip of Virginia. How about you? You’re from Virginia as well, right? 

Chris: 17:12 

I am. Clarksville. Yeah right there on 58, you were, you probably went through right through it, going to ODU many times. 

Bobby: 17:18 

I did. I I had a map, no cell phone in my Chevy cavalier and drove her out through there. And yeah so the Southwest tip of Virginia. The County I’m from makes the very tip that meets Kentucky and Tennessee Appalachian mountains. There are a lot of coal mining’s logging. Of course, very depressed these days with coal mining, being what it is, but I tell you the people there are no different and no less strong than they were years ago. 

Chris: 17:44 

Now is that close to Bristol area? 

Bobby: 17:46 

It’s very close. Yeah. Bristol is about probably a 40 minute drive.

Chris: 17:50


Bobby: 17:51 

Yep. It’s interesting. You go to Bristol, you have to go into Tennessee and then back over in the Virginia, you can be in Kentucky in about 15 minutes or so, and you can be in Tennessee about 25 minutes.

Chris: 18:02 

I got you. Okay. Yeah, we I’ve been to a couple of Bristol races. I think we stayed in your area when we went up there. 

Bobby: 18:09 

Yeah, Bristol’s great. 

Chris: 18:11 

Yeah, a lot of fun. I tell you what, unless  you have vertigo. Cause if you went inside that you’re, I don’t know if you’ve been to the race track, but it’s basically straight down, 

Bobby: 18:20 

Yeah. It’s one of the, I think it has the most bankment of any sanction NASCAR track. I forget at one point I know they changed it. Yeah. 

Chris: 18:27 

And I know you can, I think around Christmas I know my parents had done it where you can drive out on a track and they light it up with Christmas lights and stuff like that.

Bobby: 18:34 

We did that as kids. You had and everybody in the car is leaning. Yeah. You’re watching the lots and, fighting with your older brother, it’s a good time. 

Chris: 18:41 

Awesome. That’s awesome, man. How about you? I know you’re active on social, but any podcast or YouTube channel, books, anything that you find value that, that you think our listeners may enjoy?

Bobby: 18:53 

Yeah. So Think PLC is active in video production right now. We’re trying to bring what we do to the world. Cause we kinda get sheltered a little bit and don’t get to talk to the public in the sense of someone that don’t know us that already does business with us. So we, we just filmed the podcast which is kind of interesting, a live podcasts. We are, like I say, doing the video production of our shop or showing her engineering space. We want to entice people to understand how we work through day to day, outside of that yeah quite a bit. I just finished this new Matthew McConaughey book, GreenLights ,I recommend it. It’s great. I love the optimism. I love the bumper stickers as he calls them. And with that being said it’s about, living your life and making the best of it and, appreciative of people and what that means outside of that. I think I mentioned to you Death by Meetings. I finished that book up recently. I just was given a book called the Gift of Struggle. It’s a leadership book. I’m doing a lot of leadership training and study. So from that, I got to say that EECO podcast is the place to go get your podcasts. You guys do a great job. 

Chris: 19:56 

Well man. It’s very flattering. Thank you. 

Bobby: 19:59 

I was I’m so appreciative when you bother me, cause I’m a fan. 

Chris: 20:03 

As much as I am of you, man that’s awesome. And we’ll definitely put some links in the show notes for the books that you referenced, as well as links to connect directly with Think PLC and yourself. So people can follow you and reach out to you directly. I see you’re following man. It’s growing. Your numbers are growing. 

Bobby: 20:20 

It’s grown really quick. Yeah. It’s been interesting. The, like we talked about before, LinkedIn was a place where it was only recruiters at one point. And we saw activity with the new social law. A couple of years ago, come up, become a place where you could post good content. And you could get away from that. Your uncle who, with his political views on Facebook, he could go hide and on LinkedIn and see something neat.  It might be helping you in your career or some new technology you needed? So I made it a focus a year or so ago to make it a place where we’re going to put ourselves out there.

We want people to know what we’re doing. I’m not saying me, but the guys that work at Think PLC, the guys and gals doing some really neat stuff. We talk about character. Um, We’re so, so focused on character and serving each other. And everybody’s talking about culture. You can there’s every book and no, no man about culture and. I’ve come around to if we can build character together, we can grow our culture together. 

Chris: 21:16 

There you go, man. I love it. I love it. One thing we’ve been doing Bobby, we started is the lightening round and for the latest hero episodes and it’s fun, I enjoy it and I think it gives our listeners a little insight to the guests. So it’s random stuff, man. You can have quick answers. You can have a little bit longer if you like, but just let us get to know you a little bit more if you are, if you’re willing to play. 

Bobby: 21:39 

Yeah, let’s do it. 

Chris: 21:41 

Alright, man. Start out with a softball favorite food man. 

Bobby: 21:44 

Uh, Thai food 

Chris: 21:46 

Thai food. Okay. favorite adult beverage? 

Bobby: 21:48 

uh, any hazy IPA right now.

Chris: 21:50

 Okay. Nice. All time favorite movie? 

Bobby: 21:57 

Oh, way too difficult. I’m enjoying the new Ford versus Ferrari cause I have a Shelby GT 500 myself. 

Chris: 22:03 

Nice, nice. That was a good movie that, that the Ford versus Ferrari. How about I am interested cause you said you were a drummer, yeah. How about your favorite music man? 

Bobby: 22:13 

Oh, no, another one impossible for me. If I let a Spotify go or Pandora go down the path. It’s so random. It’s bluegrass into heavy metal to folk music to I’m a mixed bag. I really am. I’m just a music appreciator. 

Chris: 22:29 

I love it. I love how about so if you had to pick and I’ll let you pick two favorite bands of all time and. Just throwing that out there. Let’s see. We see what, see what comes back.

Bobby: 22:43 

Oh my gosh. I would, I would probably pick Zeppelin for bottom. I would probably pick Van Halen for the the guitar, I would build my band. You’re getting me on all levels. 

Chris: 22:54 

You can always throw in my favorite for Skynyrd but I’m just saying. 

Bobby: 22:58 

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Van Zandt on vocals, I would we’re building the team. Yeah. 

Chris: 23:02 

That’s it. We got to dream team, man. That’s awesome. All right. How about somewhere you’ve never been, but she loved to go. Somewhere. 

Bobby: 23:10 

I’ve never been that I would want to go. Fiji. 

Chris: 23:14 

Okay. How about the spots you have been to that you enjoy the most?

Bobby: 23:19 

I would go back to Sweden. I got a chance to go there as a young man. I worked for a Danish company and had a chance to travel to Denmark and spend mid-summer in North Sweden and years ago as a young many, I mean, it was, it was incredible. 

Chris: 23:32 

Nice. Okay. How about pets, man? Dogs, cats, other. 

Bobby: 23:35 

Greyhounds. I’m a Greyhound lover retired greyhounds from racetrack. I recently lost my 13 year old brindle Greyhound had been with me for 10 years. He was rescued from Florida. He had been a Florida racing dog traveled around. They are the best pets. If you’ve never been around the Greyhound and go visit project racing home and go adopt one.

Chris: 23:56 

Okay. We’ll throw that project racing home in the show notes too. So I am curious, I don’t know a lot about the Greyhound breed. So what’s the typical age for the greyhounds 

Bobby: 24:05 

Eleven to thirteen is very common. Yeah, they’re very very interesting, they have very good blood. They have large blood vessels, so vets love to use their blood. In fact, they’ll ask for Greyhound blood for transfusions, for other dogs. They’re hypoallergenic. They usually don’t shed that much. They’re just so laid back. People think that they need a massive backyard to have one, cause they can run 45 miles an hour, but they really just want to lay on a couch 20 hours out of the day, they are the best pet.

Chris: 24:36 

So you said they’re hypoallergenic too?

Bobby: 24:40 


Chris: 24:41 

I didn’t realize that. Okay. Cause I have allergies, so we have to be selected for our animals. So we have to have a Giant Schnauzer. He’s my boy but I didn’t realize the greyhounds for that way, man. 

Bobby: 24:52 

They are, they are and just their anatomy is so incredible. They go back to the Egyptians. It’s they’re just incredible creatures, right? 

Chris: 25:00

Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, Man, you survived a lightning round brother. Very good man. Bobby, this has been a blast. I love getting to, to know you and sharing your story. And we always wrap up EECO Asks Why with the Why man. And it’s just talking about the passion and what drives people. So if somebody were to pin you down, “Hey, Bobby, I want to know what your personal, why is,” what would that be?

Bobby: 25:26 

Everybody that works at ThinkPLC. Everybody that works here. That’s my why. That’s why I get up. And that’s why I do it. I have an innate nature to help people. Some of the folks that work at think PLC or ex students, they were past students of mine that come up and I brought them through the ranks. And when I look back at my biggest accomplishments, it’s not being the best programmer or, being the best business person, it’s I have folks that work for me who are not only are they the best people, but they have succeeded in their careers and to be a part of that has been my why for sure. 

Chris: 26:03 

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Hats off to you. Nothing but blessings for Think PLC in the future, man. We love you guys and what you’re doing and check them out. Check out the show notes. We’ll have everything to Bobby referred to there. You can connect with him. Follow ThinkPLC and just thank you again, Bobby for coming on and sharing your story.

Bobby: 26:22 

Yeah. Same here, Chris, EECO. You guys are doing a great thing, 

Chris: 26:25 

So thank you, sir. You have a great day. 

Bobby: 26:28 

You too.