An Appetite for Entrepreneurship
When Warren Thompson finished college in 1981 and applied to the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, he was told that business experience was required for MBA candidates.
Thompson pointed out that at age ten he had gone into partnership with his dad in the hog business. Both his parents were teachers, but the family needed extra income. By age 12, he had branched out into grass-cutting. At 15, he bought an old school bus, tore out the seats, and began ferrying fruits and vegetables between the Virginia mountains and his native Tidewater. The fact that he was too young to drive legally didn’t stop Thompson. “I knew for every bushel I sold how much I would put in my pocket,” he recalls.
Thompson made his case to the Darden admissions officers, and the Hampden-Sydney College graduate was admitted to the business school.
His early work experience motivated Thompson to be an entrepreneur. When he got a job in a hardware store, he was the first African-American salesman to work there—but the owner wouldn’t let him touch the cash register. “I knew at that moment I would be my own boss,” Thompson says.
An internship at Marriott could have led to a great career there. Instead, Thompson convinced his mentor, Dick Marriott, to help him buy the failing Big Boy restaurant chain. It was a shaky start—soon after the 33-year-old Thompson took over in 1992, a blizzard closed the 31 restaurants for a week. But he was soon turning things around by selling the restaurants and moving into the contract food business.
Today Thompson Hospitality is one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses, providing food services to businesses, school districts, colleges, and hospitals in 44 states and five countries plus operating such Washington-area restaurant chains as Austin Grill, Marvelous Market, American Tap Room, and the newly launched Be Right Burger.
Thompson has simple rules his company lives by: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and give your people a chance to grow with you. As Thompson Hospitality grows, its key employees get equity, so their nest eggs grow, too.
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