Thomas Waas (56) – Globetrotter & Entrepreneur
Thomas is CEO of the company Unicat and has a passion for building individual expedition vehicles. We had the chance to visit him at his unconventional office.
We traveled to Dettenheim, Germany to meet with the spirited owner of Unicat, Thomas Waas. Upon meeting him, the first thing you’ll notice is his casual attire: a washed-out T-shirt, jeans, and BIRKENSTOCK BOSTON clogs. For him, these are THE BIRKENSTOCKs, which he wears everywhere: at work, on trips, in summer and winter. It’s been 10 years since Waas last cut his hair. “I won’t let anyone pigeonhole me,” he laughs. “I’ve always been somewhat of a hippie, and to some extent I still am today!“
“Their eyes lit up and people got excited.“
Waas explained that, in the early days, his general manager attempted to hide him from the customers. “Because he thought an oddball like me would scare them off. But ultimately I did end up meeting the customers, and they were wondering: ‘Who’s this guy? He owns the company?’” chuckles Waas. He told customers about his travels and experiences. “Suddenly, they found me interesting and no longer considered me a freak. Their eyes lit up and people got excited!” Since then, Waas has attended every customer meeting.
Unicat, one of the global leaders in expedition vehicles, builds giant all-wheel-drive and meticulously constructed specialized travel vehicles for all the terrains of the globe that cannot be accessed with regular vehicles.
How Unicat came about is a different story, but first things first: Waas is actually a physicist who at the age of 28 founded his first highly successful company. “We produced complex software for chip manufacturers,” he explains. At 30 years-old, he had 30 employees and several patents. Waas eventually sold the company to a US firm but stayed on to manage. “We were even listed on the stock exchange at some point, but we fell out. The US management and me – it wasn’t a good fit. As soon as bankers get involved, the vision goes down the tubes. What’s needed is someone who cares about the issues and is willing to venture off the beaten path - rather than being driven by the next quarterly figures!“
In 2004, Waas left the company to travel around the world. He contracted a company called Unicat to build a custom, all terrain camper vehicle for his trip and promptly got his truck driving license. His dream vehicle, with a five-meter living space, was set to be delivered in 2006. However, before the custom vehicle could be completed, Unicat went bankrupt. This seemed to be the end of Waas’ dream.
“What’s needed is someone who cares about the issues and is willing to venture off the beaten path.“
But of course, this is where the real story begins. Waas, inspired by Unicat’s unique business niche, decided to buy the company. He kept some of the staff, bolted together his first truck, and set out to rebuild the company. “I changed a lot, especially in finance. First I reduced number of staff and then everything just took on a life of its own.“
He persuaded an old friend to join as general manager, because one thing remained: he wanted to complete his travel dream. Waas laughs as he tells us: “People were wondering how I could take over a company and then want to escape again after just six months. They thought that was a big no-no, but it was my dream and nobody was going to stop me!” Waas set off, traveling to Iran, Dubai and all over Africa – for a total of eight years - always remaining in contact with his company and managing from abroad. This time also allowed him to personally test out the vehicles he was producing with Unicat, and get first-hand experience using them.
Waas risked a lot when he bought Unicat: “You need courage and money. But there are more people with money than people with courage,” he says. And what if he had failed? “… you start again from scratch. Just wait 15 years and you’ll get there again,” he laughs.
Today, Unicat counts 30 staff members and a great reputation. The current waiting period for a vehicle is 18 months. The price of an entry level vehicle is approximately € 400,000 and the most expensive vehicle Unicat produces top a million.
You can only deliver top quality if you are personally familiar with every single screw. We only do custom orders, with each and every vehicle made by hand. They are unique pieces, made with pure craftsmanship. We do everything from start to finish; we have no pre-assembled parts or factory models.
When it comes to his vehicles, Waas looks for ongoing optimization. In reference to BIRKENSTOCKs, “…honestly there’s nothing to improve. Leather, cork bed, sole: everything is perfect!” The only thing he would possibly like is a Birkenstock model with a steel toe cap for his workshop.
Waas apparently didn’t know that such a model has long been available (the A640 professional clog).
And when is his next trip lined up? “The problem is my people won’t let me go. But at some point, I’ll be back on the road again – when no one is watching me!”