SANFORD – When he was a kid, Tom O’Brien worked at his family’s fish market and restaurant in Hull, Mass.

The experience made lasting impressions on O’Brien, now CEO of Sanford-based Tom’s of Maine. It taught him humility, he said, and gave him an awareness of the impact businesses have on their communities.

“When you are working that close to the consumer, you get immediate feedback. It’s a very humbling experience,” he said. “When (people) don’t agree with how you are doing business, they tell you very quickly,” he said.

O’Brien was raised in Hull, a small town on the south side of Boston Harbor.

His dad owns Jake’s Seafood Restaurant and Fish Market, which is the largest employer in Hull, said O’Brien.

After high school, O’Brien attended the University of Denver with dreams of becoming an NHL hockey player. He played for 18 months, then transferred to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he graduated with degrees in psychology and economics. O’Brien also earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.

He took a sales job in South Windsor, Conn., with Procter & Gamble, then advanced to district sales manager in Boston and managing director of the global deodorants and male toiletries business.

But O’Brien wanted to work in the natural products industry, and he considered starting or buying a company of his own.

That’s when he met Tom Chappell, the now-retired founder of Tom’s of Maine.

O’Brien said his values — sustainability, respect for the environment and philanthropy — matched Tom’s.

“It became very clear we believed in the same things,” he said.

In 1997, after nine months of discussions, O’Brien invested in Tom’s of Maine and became chief operating officer.

He remained on staff through the 2006 acquisition of Tom’s of Maine by Colgate-Palmolive Company, and became CEO in 2008 when Tom Chappell retired.

O’Brien lives in York Harbor with his wife Lisa. The couple have three children: 11-year-old Zachary, 10-year-old Matthew and 8-year-old Sophia.

When he’s not working, O’Brien fishes with live worms for striped bass and bluefish with his kids.

This year, the fish haven’t been biting.

“We fish every weekend for an hour or two, but have not caught one striped bass or bluefish,” he said.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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