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Sister Benita Thompson-Byas, vice president of joint ventures and vice chairman of THC’s board, recalls: “Some of them we would kill and pack the meat and some of them we would sell to the slaughterhouse because Smithfield Packing was literally 10 miles down the road. So, that was just another way that my father supplemented his income.” Thompson-Byas isn’t the only sibling involved in THC; Fred Thompson is its chief administrative officer.
The family also sold produce, buying apples and peaches from the mountains where the Thompson children’s grandfather lived and selling them in the Tidewater region, of which Windsor is a part. In turn, the family purchased corn, collard greens, and other produce to sell to the residents in the mountain areas. “I bought an old school bus when I was about 15 years old,” Thompson says. “I took all of the seats out of it and used that to haul my produce around. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I acted like I did, and no one ever stopped me.”
When Thompson’s father advanced in his career, it became difficult for him to continue with the family businesses. “I actually bought his half of the hog business out, so that was my first leveraged buyout,” Thompson says with a grin. “He gave me a loan to buy him out, and I paid him off. I raised about 100 hogs at a time. I sold those off when I went off to college.” He paid his dad about $5,000 and got a 30% to 40 % return on the business.
Those early years helped Thompson acquire a keen insight into the way a business should operate—experience that has helped him manage a company during hard times. “He’s very hands-on, very into the business details,” says O’Quinn. “He’s very good at analyzing opportunities and looking beyond the obvious opportunities into some entrepreneurial ways to approach it differently. So, knowing that he’s going to ask all the hard questions and want the detailed information, it keeps us sharp in terms of digging deeper, doing more analysis, and making sure we’ve looked at this from all angles.”
That attention to detail is extended to THC’s clients. Among them, Earl Richardson, Ed.D., president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, who says he was impressed by Thompson’s willingness to gain feedback and suggestions regarding menu items. “Because institutional food can never be ‘mother’s cooking,’ available whenever you want it, students will sometimes have complaints,” says Richardson. “But when they do, Mr. Thompson and his staff personally meet with the students and negotiate workable solutions.” Although Saint Paul’s was THC’s first HBCU client, Morgan State was its first major university client in 1995.
THE NEXT CAMPAIGN
Thompson is franchising his Austin Grill and Marvelous Market concepts. “I think it’s going to be a major driver, and within five years I expect those to be largely a franchise group. We’re seeking good franchise partners outside the Washington mid-Atlantic area.” Now 50, Thompson will have to continue to draw on every lesson learned from his four decades as a businessperson. Research firm Standard & Poor’s forecasts consumer spending at restaurants will continue to be adversely affected by a weak U.S. economy, high job insecurity, and continued decline in the number of restaurants. However, over the longer term, S&P expects a trend toward an increased portion of food spending on meals outside the home as families with at least two income earners lack time to prepare food at home.
THC is proof that sometimes the road to success is paved with earlier failures, having battled back from a setback that was potentially catastrophic. Indeed, companies have gone belly-up as a result of lesser mishaps, but Thompson and his team’s fortitude and business acumen have enabled them to withstand not only a soured deal but the ravages of an unforgiving economy. And the enterprising chief executive wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have no regrets that we got into business through purchasing the 31 Big Boys from Marriott because it gave us the foundation and the platform to build what is today a very successful company.” That’s Thompson’s recipe for growth.