SULLIVAN, THOMAS C. (July 8, 1937-November 30, 2020) was a philanthropist and businessman who led his family’s coatings company, RPM Inc. through more than 50 years of growth and development. He was the youngest of six children born to Frank C. Sullivan and Margaret Mary Wilhelmy.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Sullivan attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana, graduating in 1955. He then joined the Miami University of Ohio Class of 1959, assuming numerous student leadership positions during his college years before receiving a bachelor’s degree in business. From his completion of college in 1959 until 1961, he served as a Communications ensign in the Navy, working across the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Braine.
In 1961, Sullivan joined Republic Powdered Metals in Medina, Ohio, the company his father Frank founded in 1947. He gradually rose through the company’s ranks, becoming Divisional Sales Manager in 1963, Vice President in 1969, and Executive Vice President in 1970. In 1971, Sullivan stepped into the double role of Board Chairman and CEO after his father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. That same year, he transformed the existing company into RPM Inc. in order to speed up an acquisition initiative. The company grew to become a world leader in specialty coatings such as Rust-Oleum and Day-Glo, with 40 independent operating units. Tom Sullivan stepped down as CEO in 2002, handing the reins to his son Frank. In 2008, he retired after 37 years of serving as chairman, but continued to serve on the board as chairman emeritus until 2016. During the span of his involvement with the company, RPM went from $11 million to an estimated $2 billion in annual business.
On top of his efforts to grow RPM, Sullivan also devoted himself to improving his industry as a whole by serving as the Vice Chairman of the National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA), a group that represents about 400 manufacturers in the industry. In his capacity with NPCA, he negotiated a milestone agreement that established lead exposure warnings, advocated for asbestos litigation reform, and encouraged the NPCA’s participation in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Sector Strategies, which attempts to remove barriers that stifle innovation and environmental progress. He received the group’s highest honor, The George Baugh Heckel Award, in 2003.
Beyond his work in the paintings and coatings industry, Sullivan was also committed to philanthropic efforts, especially when it came to education. In 1991, he and his wife established The Thomas C. and Sandra S. Sullivan Family Foundation to provide money for programs that help the poor. He was very involved with Metro Catholic School and Urban Community School, which has a library named after the couple and a science wing named after RPM. With a $750,000 gift, he also helped create the Thomas and Sandra Sullivan Cleveland Scholars program, which provides scholarship support to Northeast Ohio children so that they can get a high school education. He assisted his alma maters by helping to establish the Cleveland Chapter of Miami University’s Urban Cohort program and by serving on the board of the Culver Educational Foundation and as Gift Chair for the Class of 1955 alumni group. He also served on numerous boards of Cleveland area organizations.
For his work as a businessman and philanthropist, Sullivan was awarded numerous honors. He was named Financial World Magazine’s “CEO of the Year” in 1990. As a devout Catholic, he received the Charles Eisenman Award, which is presented by the Jewish Community Federation for embodying the tenets of his faith by embracing the faiths of all people. Furthermore, he was honored with the Irish American Achieve Society’s WALKS OF LIFE AWARD in 2007.
Sullivan was married to Sandra Simmons from 1960 until her death in 2019. Together, they had four sons and two daughters: Frank, Sean, Tommy, Dan (a United States Senator for Alaska), Kathleen and Julie. He passed away on November 30, 2020 at the age of 83.