As a young boy, LaMonte Thomas watched in awe as locomotives passed by his middle school. He dreamed of jumping aboard and taking off for destinations unknown. His fascination with trains has stuck with him through the years, and provides the basis for his favorite pastime—model railroads.
Now in his 20th year at Cigna, he serves as president and general manager for North Texas and Oklahoma. Thomas first discovered the world of model railroads at a train show in Virginia. He thought it would be a fun activity to take up when he retired someday. But about 10 years ago, he decided to get an early start and set up his first “layout” in his home office. Dead-set on making everything perfect, Thomas became frustrated with the process. At another train show, he shared his frustrations with an older gentleman. The man told him to go outside and look around. Thomas decided to humor the guy and did as he was told. When he came back inside the man asked him, “What did you see that was perfect?” Nothing, Thomas realized.
After adjusting his expectations, everything changed. “I realized that it’s just about relaxation—creating something and being able to adjust it based on my mood or something I have been inspired by,” Thomas says. “I’m the conductor. This is my railroad. What do I want to see along this journey that will excite me?”
“A lot of times in business we’re too busy chasing the next thing.”
Model railroad components can be purchased in pieces or in kits at train shows, hobby stores, and through online sites. It’s all part of the fun, according to Thomas. Kits have instructions and guidelines on how to put the pieces together, but you still have the ability to adjust according to your own personal taste.
Thomas started with an “HO scale” setup, the most popular type of layout in model railroads, but has since shifted to a smaller “N Scale” layout. He’s considering renting a storage unit to turn into his own, personal “man cave.” But for now, he sets up shop in his garage, where an endless amount of possibilities and creativity rest within his reach. His children call it “Thomasville,” as the setup reflects his own personality.
The health insurance exec has more than 100 different engines and a few hundred connecting cars. But his hobby is more than just collecting, Thomas says. It is a means of designing, creating, and adjusting new worlds through model scenery, buildings, trees, cars, people, and the like. This art has inspired him to become more aware of his surroundings and to take notice of little nuances, like the way tree trunks often have a grayish tone rather than a brown tone. In turn, this has taught him the importance of paying attention to details at work, and seeing things through his customer’s eyes.
Throughout his years with model trains, Thomas says he has learned important things from other enthusiasts. “And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here at Cigna,” he says. “We’re trying to pause and listen to our customers and really understand what their needs are and how we can help them, versus building everything from our own perspective.”
Thomas says his hobby has helped him become more patient and taught him the importance of enjoying the moment. Creating beautiful layouts does not happen overnight; it takes time, concentration, and energy. “You learn from the errors you make,” Thomas says. “And I think that transfers over to business.”
He keeps a few of his most sentimental pieces—a CSX engine and coal cars given to him by the old man at the train show—up on a shelf. They remind him to relax and appreciate the little wins along the way. It’s a lesson that applies in the business world, too. “A lot of times in business we’re so busy chasing the next thing,” Thomas says. “We don’t pause enough to really enjoy what we’ve done or encourage our people to do the same.”